A theatrical troupe is presenting Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore, Maryland. The cast includes Fred Graham and his former wife, Lilli; also Bill Calhoun, an irresponsible gambler, and the girl whom he is interested in, Lois Lane. Bill breaks down and confesses to Lois that he is involved with gangsters, who have his I.O.U. for $10,000 from a game of cards. Bill, however, has signed it in the name of Fred Graham. This is not the first time Lois has had to tolerate Bill's escapades, and she inquires poignantly why he cannot behave himself. Meanwhile Fred and Lilli begin to realize that their one-time tender feelings for each other have not completely died out. They start to reminisce about the shows in which they appeared, including an old-fashioned Viennese operetta. Just before the opening night of The Taming of the Shrew, Fred sends flowers to Lois. By mistake they come to Lilli's dressing room - further proof (she thinks) that Fred still loves her. She now openly reveals that that love is reciprocated.
On stage, the performance of The Taming of the Shrew is taking place. As a play within a play, we learn that Bianca cannot get married until her older sister, Katherine, has found a husband. When Petruchio arrives in Padua to seek out a rich wife he is chosen for Katherine. She, (the Shrew of the title), makes no attempt to conceal her feelings about men while Petruchio knows that Katherine is not the woman of his dreams. Nevertheless, he agrees to marry her.
We are now transferred from Shakespeare's Padua back to the intrigues within the theatrical company. Having learned that Fred's flowers were meant for Lois, Lilli bursts into a fit of temper, and announces hotly that she is leaving the company for good. Her departure, however, is delayed by the arrival of gangsters coming to collect from Bill the $10,000 for his I.O.U. As it has Fred's name on it, they pursue him for the money, but, he says, if Lilli leaves the company, the show cannot continue and he will be unable to give them the money. To ensure that neither Fred nor Lilli leave until the money is paid, the gangsters become part of the show and accompany its two principals everywhere on stage during the performance.
Cast:In the second act we return to The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio and Katherine are now man and wife. Since her violent tempers and caprices are complicating Petruchio's life to no end, he begins to recall nostalgically his single-blessedness Backstage, when Bill reprimands Lois for flirting with one of the actors, she makes light of her tendency to be fickle. But, for all his troubles with Lois, Bill has good cause for cheer. There has been a violent shake-up in the gangster world, as a result of which the I.O.U. is no longer valid. Bill and Lois are now reconciled, and Katherine and Fred return to each other.
Lilli Vannessi/Kate – Alex Chatworthy
Fred Graham/Petruchio – Alex Knox
Lois Lane/Bianca – Kae Alexander
Bill/Lucentio – Joshua Miles
Gangster – Lewis Goody
Gangster – Stephen Wilson
Hattie – Mabel Clements
General Harrison – Kingsley Ben-Adir
Harry/Baptista – Josh Hart
Hortensio – Karl Brown
Gremio – Thomas Clegg
Music and lyrics – Cole Porter
Book – Bella and Sam Spewack
Director – Martin Connor
Choreographer – Joseph Pitcher
Designer – Mark Bailey
Hurrah, a musical! Just when I was beginning to lose all hope (ironically, one based round a Shakespeare play), and a good one too, by more or less the same creative team as last year’s Curtains! Once again, it’s a “money no object” production as the mighty coffers of practically all the big London professional guilds drain into Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s bank account – there have been six months of rehearsals, 26 musicians in the pit and more backstage crew than you can shake a stick at, all of whom will soon be making their way into the big, frightening and expensive world backed up by Mummie and Daddies’ Trust Fund. For some, the big time beckons, for others it will be Casualty, and for a good few, life will be spent struggling to keep up with the demand for double-decaff-skinny-latte orders or spitting in the food of those who don’t leave a decent tip.
Like last year, there are slick production values, good scenery, great costumes and loads of bodies on stage, supplemented by a fair few from the singing courses. This year, however, its more difficult to pick out those who are not the natural stage animals, although there is the obligatory tubby guy in a horrendous costume beaming all over his face and having the time of his life as he hits his top notes and struggles to keep up with the choreography. What larks! How wonderful this week will be to look back on as he toils away the years as the assistant accountant for an agent, adding up all those lovely ten-per-cents that his erstwhile friends are racking up for his boss.
The trouble is that Kiss Me, Kate (note the comma, which for some reason is missing from the front cover and cast list page of the programme) needs a male lead with a few years under his belt. Fred Graham needs to be a world-weary, slightly washed up actor, anxiously scanning for crow’s feet and trying to hold age and an expanding waistline at bay with crimson lake and a tightly hitched corset under his costume. Alex Knox, although admittedly young and pretty, plays it young and pretty as well. For all his swagger, its like watching an ingénue making his first stab at King Lear. And he’s a tenor, for chrissakes; Fred Graham is a bass-baritone role (it was one of Howard Keel’s greatest screen roles). Although I enjoyed his performance throughout, Fred/Petruchio is not his role. Yet. Give it another 20 years and then we’ll see. Alex Chatworthy, however, manages to convey Lilli’s faded edges convincingly, does a great line in tired sarcasm, seems familiar with the bitterness of disappointment and yet looks astonishingly like a very young Jodie Foster. Her Lilli seems somehow much older than Knox’s Fred. Kae Alexander lands the plum ingénue role of Lois Lane and has a great time being irritatingly perky all evening, although quite what she sees in Joshua Miles’ rather dreary Bill is beyond me. Of the two gangsters, Lewis Goody (in what is nominally the lesser role of the two) is by far the most entertaining, and pulls off the astoundingly difficult feat of singing all of Brush Up Your Shakespeare while constantly chewing gum. That, my friend, is talent.
The role of Hattie (technically Lilli Vannessi’s maid but in this version reduced to the status of dresser) isn’t the world’s best part but gets to start the ball rolling in both acts with one of musical theatre’s best opening songs Another Op’nin’, Another Show and also Too Darn Hot at the top of Act 2 – but is denied the former in this particular version in which there is not only no overture but in which Another Op’nin’ is doled out piecemeal between the entire chorus. Kingsley Ben-Adir scores an unexpected hit with the “straight” role of General Harrison (again, rewritten from the original version) and also gets the added bonus of the song From This Moment On, which doesn’t appear in the stage version but has been added from the film, sitting slightly awkwardly, I thought.
Although its slick, well sung and obviously very well rehearsed, the choreography is rather disappointing. For a start, there ain’t that much of it. Its there when you expect it – and nowhere else. There are a couple of places where Petruchio’s solos cry out for a bevy of beautiful hoofers, most notably during Were Thine That Special Face, whose rumba beat doesn’t so much cry out for it as sit up and beg for it. What choreography there is, is often slightly utilitarian, leaving me feeling that the whole show is somewhat meh in places when it could have been WOW. I enjoyed the slightly cartoony Taming of the Shrew sets but noticed a major error that someone on the design team should be roundly spanked for. When we see Fred and Lilli’s dressing rooms from the inside (with the doors upstage), Lilli is in Dressing Room 1 on stage left, and Fred in Room 2 on stage right. Therefore, when we see the dressing room doors from the other side (i.e. from the corridor) the door to Room 1 should be stage right and room 2 stage left - but they’re not. In fact, from the corridor, the doors (and therefore the rooms behind them) have somehow swapped sides. Neither has there been any effort made in getting Lilli’s bouquet (snowdrops, pansies and rosemary, according to the script) to look anything like snowdrops; pansies and rosemary – although one wonders where the snowdrops came from in midsummer Baltimore. Someone perhaps needs to change the script to “a bunch of generic stage greenery”. Yes, I know, I know!
The pleasure of seeing a good show with a lot of noise coming from the pit is enhanced later by scanning the “News of last year’s graduates” page in the programme. Some have indeed gone on to greatness, some fallen by the wayside with a single appearance in Casualty. Now that The Bill is no longer, things are tough out there. Still, spare a thought for some of the technical graduates, who have worked on such exciting things as Paul Daniels: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow (I kid you not), the WhatsonStage Theatregoers’ Choice Award Ceremony 2011 and, soul-destroyingly, the IBM Smarter Industries Symposium. I think I would rather gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. Or perhaps sit through Richard III again.