Theatre Circuit: Kiss Me Kate (***)

Kiss Me Kate poster 2012 The Old Vic musical Hannah WaddinghamAs the world awaits the much-anticipated movie adaptation of classic West-End musical Les Miserables, the man who first brought the epic tale to the stage, Trevor Nunn, focuses his energy on a somewhat more modest project. Last week I was lucky enough to attend a preview performance of Kiss Me Kate at London’s legendary Old Vic Theatre, directed by triple Tony Award winner Nunn, who was also in attendance during the performance.

Starring West-End favourite Hannah Waddingham (The Wizard of Oz) and one-time movie star Adam Garcia (Coyote Ugly), the classic musical is revived on the stage with gusto and verve. Based around the opening night of a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the cast is led my famous actress Lilli Vanessi and her ex-husband Fred Graham, who also directs and produces the show. As an audience we are treated to the shenanigans both on and off the stage as the musical splits itself between a typical backstage Broadway number and a show-within-a-show Shakespearean farce.

Both aspects of the show feature standout moments, with hit songs Too Darn Hot, Another Op’nin’ Another Show, and I Hate Men bringing spirited energy to the stage and providing the biggest laughs for the audience. The cast are strong, and approach the material, which is admittedly a little dated, with appropriate reverence. Waddingham in particular proves why she is a part of theatre’s current crop of best regarded performers. Her vocal proficiency is virtually without fault, as she flits from operatic arias to the razzmatazz tones of Broadway with incredible ease and sensational effect. Her solo number ‘I Hate Men’ had the audience laughing merrily at her vivacious performance and enviable comedic skills.

Likewise supporting actress Holly Dale Spencer plays up the role of ditzy co-star Lois Lane dangerously close to the realms of overbearing caricature, but Nunn reins his actress in to a level that works for the character, who in the 1953 movie version was played less for laughs by the sultrier Ann Miller. Her standout song ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ is a comedic gem that had much of the audience in stitches; the irony of the line ‘Dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick’ is perhaps more prevalent now than it was in the late 1940s!

Along with the cast, the staging also plays its part. Humble it may be but a series of decorated gauze pieces, along with a couple of relatively simple key sets go a long way in creating an effective atmosphere for the musical to unfold. Similarly the costumes are of particular note with the retro Broadway stylings juxtaposed beautifully with the over-the-top Baroque dresses and doublets of the Shakespearean era.

On its own Kiss Me Kate is a worthy and well-acted production, from the hands of a theatre legend. It is only when compared to the musical behemoths already out there (Wicked, Matilda, The Lion King and the like) that it struggles to compete. The second half is too long and sadly loses a lot of steam by the final curtain. Likewise a number of the songs are not only several reprises too long, but also disappointingly throwaway, and as with many musicals the story is as lightweight as they come. But this is not to say that Kiss Me Kate is not an entertaining show; it is a perfectly amusing musical, that’s as well-performed as it is light and frothy.

Kiss Me Kate runs from 20 November 2012 – 2 March 2013 at The Old Vic, London.