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'Kiss Me, Kate'

As good as the silver screen

by Emma Pegler

November 2001 -- Victoria Palace, London

I am not generally a fan of musicals - well on stage, at any rate. I love the old black and white screen versions for their catchy tunes with clearly enunciated lyrics that I can sing along to and for their glamorous dance numbers. But there is something terribly garish about stage musicals, as if the colour control is turned up too high. You can’t cut to other scenes nor home in on the nuance of a smile. Everything is obvious and spelt out. Even the costumes tell you who the character is before a word is ever spoken. Nor am I a great fan of the old-fashioned theatres where musicals are staged – the deep, deep red velvet seats on an incline so steep I fear the astigmatism that constantly causes me to miss my footing on the stairs will lead to my untimely death.

Yet I liked “Kiss me Kate”. Michael Blakemore’s revival at the Victoria Palace of the Cole Porter classic brought a little Broadway razzmatazz to an otherwise bleak November evening. Singing softly to the great song numbers “From this moment on” and “Always true to you (in my fashion),” I overcame my vertigo, folded away my long legs (there is always a lack of leg room in these old theatres) and had a thoroughly good time.

Fred and Lilli used to be married. They come back together on a professional basis to stage Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” taking the parts of Petruchio and Katharine. Lilli mistakenly thinks the good luck posy from Fred is for her, whereas it’s for the company tart with the half-squeaky, half-nasal Bronx voice. So Lilli calls for her lover, a general, to tear himself away from the President and rescue her. She is being prevented from just walking out by two gangsters who mistakenly think Fred owes their boss a gambling debt and that a box office success will pay off the debt. To cut a long story short (and spare you more “mistaken” identities and motives), Lilli comes back to finish the “Shrew” and comes to heel both as Lilli with Fred and as Kate with Petruchio. Sam and Bella Spewack’s book is predictable but has sufficient high-brow credentials (well, it paraphrases Shakespeare) to take us beyond the naff story lines of later musicals.

The leads, with the exception of Fred, all hail from the original Broadway production of the show. The singing by the classically trained cast is of a high standard. The principal characters, Fred (Brent Barrett) and Lilli (Marin Mazzie), are given songs which are a good foil for their true operatic voices, whereas Lois (Nancy Andersen) has songs for a blues/jazz voice. Although Barrett has a wonderful voice, he doesn’t appear to dance a step (which is a surprise because his Broadway debut was as Tony in the revival of “West Side Story” directed by the great man himself, Jerome Robbins), whilst Mazzie looks rather too matronly to break out into dance.

The next two most important characters, however, Bill (and Lucentio in “Shrew”) (Michael Berresse) and girlfriend Lois, really can dance. Bill proves his love for Lois by dancing up the back stairs and climbing between floors feet first whilst supporting himself in a handstand on the rail, like a more athletic Elvis in “Jailhouse Rock,” dancing round the bars of his prison cell. I certainly would have been impressed in her shoes.

The highlight was Nolan Frederick singing and dancing to the lazy Jazz tune “Too darn hot.” He isn’t a virtuoso dancer but he’s sure got rhythm and knows how to hold an audience. Maybe this is because he trained with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Plus, you name the musical, and he’s been in it. I adore dancers dancing up and off walls and drainpipes - it reminds me of Astaire dancing with the contents of an office (including a hat stand) in the film “Swing Time.”

There are other vignettes to savour, most notably the girls in one of the “Shrew” scenes, lying on their backs with their legs in the air, naughtily encouraging those local boys to remove their stockings. I was not sure what came next. In the end it is just that the girls are preparing to dance what is probably a version of the tarantella in the wine vat, in a coquettish and provocative manner, their skirts hitched up to their waistbands, supposedly pressing the wine with their feet. But the part I liked best – you’re going to think this corny – was the pantomime donkey, (the two gangsters incognito), sweeping his two right hooves across his left ones and launching into a natty ‘pas de cheval’ with a cocky swagger.

Edited by Staff.

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