I’d envisaged a lavish production littered with theatrical ‘in-jokes’ with Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s 1948 musical depicting the on and offstage antics of a production of The Taming of the Shrew. But whilst there’s certainly flashes of this, Opera North’s production didn’t provide the unashamedly joyful experience I had hoped for.
Reviewing musical theatre as a feminist is problematic at the best of times. I’m not going to proffer a critical reading of Shakespeare’s play because several thousand scholars can do (and have done) this more skillfully than I. However, what I will say is that nearly every populist musical I’ve been to see, both new and old, treads the track of relatively troubling sexism. And whilst Kiss Me Kate presents a metatheatrical critique of Petruchio’s gaslighting of Kate on the surface, 60 years on, it does more to reinforce stereotypes than undermine them.
It isn’t all bad. Without doubt, Opera North’s touring production has a very strong cast and most of the performances are executed beautifully. Zoe Rainey’s Lois Lane is a masterclass in musical comedy. Both Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corely present strong leading performances, though Corely’s outstanding operatic soprano occasionally veers (somewhat bizarrely) into a bit of a tinny MT belt. The old favourites go down well: Another Opening, Another Show and Too Darn Hot are lots of fun, and Brush Up Your Shakespeare is beautifully silly. However, the production values aren’t flawless. The dialogue, having aged badly, drags. For the most part, the show struggles to fill the gargantuan stage of the Coliseum. The blend of musical theatre and opera singing doesn’t always work, and at times is jarring.
At best, Kiss Me Kate is energetically performed but somewhat overwhelming. At worst, it’s yet another example of tired narratives which continue to dominate the UK’s musical theatre scene.