Friday, 7 October 2016

Kiss Me, Kate WNO

Image Source: ATG
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Opera
Genre: Comedy
Date: October 5 2016
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre, Liverpool, England

Kiss Me, Kate is the latest nationwide offering from the Welsh National Opera group, following Sweeney Todd last year. In contrast to Sweeney Todd, where the tone was darkly comical at times and the overall premise was sinister, here we have a feel-good comedy story, with opera music explaining the plot and providing some additional memorable musical moments. The story is mostly easy to follow, the cast perform very well and the songs are of a high quality, which results in this being another strong production by the WNO team.

In this case, there is a show within a show. The premise is that a Broadway version of the classic Shakespeare tale The Taming Of The Shrew is about to present its opening night performance. Adding to the intrigue, the lead performers in the show - Petruchio a.k.a. Fred Graham, played by Quirijn de Lang, and Katherine/Lilli Vanessi, played by Jeni Bern - have previously been married but have now been divorced for one year; however, some friendly teasing and dancing seems to rekindle their romance prior to show time. Which creates an awkward situation when Fred has one of his assistants deliver flowers and a romantic card intended for another cast member, only for it to fall into Lilli's hands, who only discovers the truth by reading the card during the course of the show, when she is playing Katherine and Fred is playing Petruchio.

From there, there is a side-story of Fred trying to keep in character and to persuade his former lover and co-star to also remain professional, despite her obvious frustrations, and to stick to the script. At various points, she even threatens to quit mid-show. In the meantime, though, we learn that Fred has been linked to an unpaid debt, with two representatives of a local gangster keeping a watchful eye on Fred to ensure they receive their payment. But he manipulates the situation so that it is a mild form of blackmail towards Lilli to keep her performing, otherwise she could face some serious consequences for a debt she is not responsible for. The intrigue comes as we look to see whether or not the show will run smoothly right up until its finish, as well as finding out what happens with the owed debt and, of course, how the relationship between the Katherine and Petruchio characters will develop as we approach the show's big finale. The name of the main show is Kiss Me, Kate, but within the Shakespearean tale, the Katherine character is now very reluctant to adhere to the planned lip-lock due to the off-stage problems, despite it being the crux of the entire musical. So, will the audience receive the desired ending, or will there be an awkward conclusion that leaves everybody involved feeling unsatisfied?

What makes this show work is that the story is told through the regular use of mild comedy. It's clearly light-hearted, from the bait-and-switch when it comes to passing over the blame over the debt to the deliberately bad production gaffes (performers being out of place, a scene being cut out because Lilli can no longer sit properly due to an earlier altercation with Fred). Even when the show takes on a more serious and slightly sad tone, there is nothing overly emotional which should alter the perception of the show as a whole. And besides some occasionally mild swearing, the show is almost entirely family-friendly. It feels like something you would watch in the afternoon on a Bank Holiday Monday; a feel-good, light-hearted story.

Of course, we have to also mention the music. While there is a greater emphasis on the dialogue telling the main story compared to the previous WNO show Sweeney Todd, there are still plenty of opera songs throughout the entire show, from the very beginning right up to the very end. Many of them help to move the plot along, such as Another Op'nin', Another Show; Tom, Dick, or Harry; I Hate Men; Too Darn Hot; and, of course, Kiss Me, Kate. Some of the tunes are a little on the lengthy side, but they are all performed very well, occasionally with an obviously comedic tone (especially Tom, Dick or Harry). Many are accompanied by first-class dance moves, with the backing crew being able to showcase their more contemporary dance skills in a contrast to the more traditional moves by the central characters during the bigger numbers. You'll definitely find yourself bobbing your head and singing along with some of the tunes, and there are several songs which will stick in your mind when all is said and done.

Elsewhere, Quirijn de Lang does a great job as Fred/Petruchio, acting as both the lead performer and the (storyline) director of the Shakespeare production. Jeni Bern is also very convincing as Lilli/Katherine, particularly during the scenes when their characters can't be seen by the audience. And even Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin do a nice job as the two gunmen, who later get involved in the show as a whole, leading to some interesting situations for the obviously inexperienced and unprepared duo. Elsewhere, the Shakespearean-era costumes are superb, and the old-style settings, from the outside of the castle to the grand hall backdrop, are fantastic; a lot of work has clearly gone into the settings, including the behind-the-scenes backdrops like the off-stage curtains and the performer dressing rooms.

The big negative I would have about the show is that it lasted far too long. A lengthy show at the theatre isn't always a bad thing (Blood Brothers being a perfect example), but with a first half that lasted just shy of 90 minutes, and the second half helping to bring the show at north of three hours including the intermission, both myself and other members of the audience were getting restless towards the end. It probably isn't unfair to suggest that the team could have chopped around 20-30 minutes out of the show, and the story would barely have been affected, if at all.

Despite this, Kiss Me, Kate is a very entertaining (yet overly long) opera production that fans of the genre and of comedic situations in a theatre environment should thoroughly enjoy.

Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good

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