Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican is an undemanding, enjoyable, five-star evening of musical theatre nostalgia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kiss me, Kate (Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter, Book by Sam and Bella Spewack): Barbican Theatre, London, 15.6.2024. (JPr)

Stephanie J Block (Lilli) and Adrian Dunbar (Fred) in Kiss Me, Kate © Johan Persson

What goes on backstage forms the basis of many great twentieth-century masterpieces such as Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, Ken Ludwig’s play Lend Me a Tenor and musicals from the Gershwins, Crazy for You, and Harry Warren’s 42nd Street. Perhaps the best of these ‘show within a show’ theatre events is Cole Porter’s 1948 Kiss Me, Kate. Unless you are in the know, I suspect most audiences always ponder from time to time what really happens backstage before the curtain rises or falls. Porter’s lyrics for Kiss Me, Kate are some of his wittiest and there is a light-hearted if rather wordy, ‘life becomes art’ Pirandello-inspired book by Sam and Bella Spewack. However, a musical with (amongst others) ‘I Hate Men’, ‘Why Can’t You Behave?’, ‘Too Darn Hot’, ‘So In Love’ and ‘Always True To You In My Fashion’’ cannot fail to entrance theatregoers anywhere, anytime.

It is 1948 and Fred Graham is the egotistical actor-impresario, who has adapted The Taming of the Shrew into a musical and is trying it out in Baltimore. Naturally he takes the role of Petruchio; his co-star playing Kate is Lilli Vanessi, his ex-wife, and a temperamental movie actress though not the hot ticket she once was. Fred is interested in Lois Lane a young fledgling ‘actress’ in the company but Lois already has a boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, who is an inveterate gambler and has signed Fred’s name to a $10,000 IOU. When Fred sends flowers with a romantic note to Lois they are delivered to Lilli by mistake. She assumes that Fred is still in love with her – which, even from the start, is quite possibly true – and reads the note, discovering who the flowers were really meant for just before she is due to perform a pivotal scene with Fred, setting the stage (so to speak) for the fireworks to start.

Of course, the blame lies with Shakespeare, but all productions of Kiss Me, Kate must face the truth that if we apply #MeToo criteria it is not a very PC story. As originally staged it requires the fiercely independent and headstrong Kate to eventually become totally submissive and compliant, and to help bring this about she is even put over Petruchio’s knee and spanked. That is a no-no in 2024 as is Petruchio literally cracking the whip to rein Kate in. In Bartlett Sher’s brilliant new production – amongst other revisions to address any misogyny – the spanking is a passing threat and the whip cracking, well no spoilers from me, is one of many laugh-out-loud moments in this clash of egos and tempers.

To be truthful it is Lilli who mostly now has the upper hand throughout and her acquiescence in the final scene when Fred and Lilli reunite – in the guise of Petruchio and Kate – is with a wink to suggest ‘the plays the thing’ and their new life together will in reality be something else entirely. I wonder how much Sher wants us to think about the perpetually stormy relationship of the twice-married and twice-divorced Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who starred in the 1967 Franco Zeffirelli film of Taming of the Shrew? Especially since in Sher’s staging Fred and Lilli are cast with actors somewhat older than usual.

This is a no-expense-spared production and must be destined for a life (somewhere) after the run at Barbican Theatre. I have seen (live or broadcast) much theatre, ballet and opera throughout the world; however, only rarely have I seen a set as monumental (and realistic) as Michael Yeargan’s for this new Kiss me, Kate. Employing the Barbican Theatre’s turntable and vast stage we see the action of the musical move seamlessly from onstage, to dressing rooms backstage and to events in the alley outside the stage door. Regardless of where you are sitting watching Kiss Me, Kate you might think – as I initially did – that the extraordinary set would swamp the performances, but it is a credit to a fantastic cast that it never does. Sher’s direction has a certain filmic fluidity to it and with Catherine Zuber’s vibrant and colourful costumes capturing the period of the late 1940s to perfection, much riotous fun is had by all.

That Adrian Dunbar – famous from TV’s Line of Duty – is making his musical theatre debut as Fred has tended to overshadow ‘Broadway legend’ Stephanie J Block appearing on a London stage for the first time. Dunbar doesn’t let the show down though I urge you to see Block light up the stage. Her Kate is fiercely intelligent, yet starved of the success and status, as well as the love/affection, she craves. As the musical progresses you realise she has never completely fallen out of love for Fred even though she is being courted by a blowhard US general. Block is at her very best when the pair are at war and she scowls and snarls wonderfully during Kate’s ‘I Hate Men’ – making me truly believe she actually did – whilst bringing an affecting vulnerability to ‘So In Love’. Allied to Block’s impeccable comic timing is her exceptional singing voice from the first duet with Dunbar’s Fred; though sadly his own contribution was something less than ‘Wunderbar’.

Adrian Dunbar is suitably – and believably – rakish and louche as Fred and gets better the more emotional and exasperated his character becomes at the events unfolding to undermine his relationships and the success of his show. (His initial Irish-American accent returns ‘home’ to Dunbar’s Enniskillen roots several times during the musical.) Dunbar does his very best to overcome the tongue-twisting and demanding ‘I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily In Padua’ and the reflective ‘Where Is The Life That Late I Led?’. His singing proves he is a real trouper and has an engaging quality without suggesting in any way he is a genuine musical theatre performer.

One of the best reasons to see this revival is Georgina Onuorah’s outstanding performance as the tart-with-a-heart Lois/Bianca; she is totally natural, engaging, charismatic, and a fine comic actor. Onuorah brought a singular aggrieved air to her ‘Why Can’t You Behave?’ duet with Bill and later gave the showstopping ‘Always True To You In My Fashion’ a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, cheery, totally self-confident edge.

The company of Kiss Me, Kate perform ‘Too Darn Hot’ © Johan Persson

As Bill, Charlie Stemp is a superb dancer who finally gets some significant time in the spotlight tap-dancing centre stage as the second act begins with a rousing performance of ‘Too Darn Hot’ led by Jack Butterworth’s Paul. It all picks up considerable steam, enabling the members of the ensemble to fully demonstrate their dancing prowess in veteran Anthony Van Laast’s high-energy and exuberant choreography. In fact, there is no real weak link in the cast with each seeming a triple-threat as singers, dancers and actors. A vibrant Josie Benson sets a high standard right from the start during the opening enthusiastic scene-setting ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’.

Every time they are anywhere near the stage Hammed Animashaun and Nigel Lindsay simply steal the scene as the two pinstripe-suited, fedora-wearing, gun-toting hoodlums who show up to collect on Fred’s debt and — to their initial dismay and eventual delight — end up getting involved (as producers!) in all the shenanigans onstage. Theirs was a typically British ‘Carry On Prohibition’-take on a pair of heavies but they thoroughly deserved the repeated returns they get for one more verse during the spotlit pun-filled ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’. This song is Kiss Me, Kate’s tribute to the Bard and to theatre itself.

Like most musicals of Broadway’s Golden Years Kiss Me, Kate runs headlong to its end after the interval. Lilli eventually comes to realise what her life may become if she goes ahead and marries the boorish General Harrison Howell (Peter Davidson chewing the scenery and his cigar). As Kate she eventually returns to Fred/Petruchio and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ … oh sorry wrong play!

All credit to the sixteen listed musicians led by Stephen Ridley who settled after an iffy start to give as good an account of the Cole Porter’s infectiously tuneful score as you would hope for live. Kiss Me, Kate will be great night out for anyone wanting an undemanding, very enjoyable, five-star evening of musical theatre nostalgia.

For all fans of Adrian Dunbar please look out for the ‘wee donkey’!

Jim Pritchard

Featured Image: [l-r] Hammed Animashaun  and Nigel Lindsay (as the Gangsters) with Adrian Dunbar (Fred) in Kiss Me, Kate © Johan Persson

Director – Bartlett Sher
Choreographer – Anthony Van Laast
Set designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume designer – Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer – Donald Holder
Sound designer – Adam Fisher
Musical supervisor and director – Stephen Ridley

Adrian Dunbar – Fred Graham / Petruchio
Stephanie J. Block – Lilli Vanessi / Katherine
Charlie Stemp – Bill Calhoun / Lucentio
Georgina Onuorah – Lois Lane / Bianca
Nigel Lindsay – Gangster
Hammed Animashaun – Gangster
Peter Davison – General Harrison Howell
Josie Benson – Hattie
Jack Butterworth – Paul
Jude Owusu – Harry Trevor / Baptista
Carl Au – Ensemble / Hortensio
Jordan Crouch – Ensemble / Gremio
Gary Milner – Ensemble / Ralph
James Hume – Ensemble / Pops

Alisha Capon, Shani Cantor, Maya de Faria, Amelia Kinu-Muus, Jacqui Jameson, Lucas Koch, Alex Lodge, Nell Martin, Anna McGarahan, John Stacey, Harrison Wilde – Ensemble

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