Kiss Me Kate continues at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London until 26 January 2014.
Cole Porter’s lovely Kiss Me Kate (comma deleted in line with the recent Old Vic revival and all the better for it) is one of those special musicals, like West Side Story and My Fair Lady, in which virtually every song is a humdinger.
And when you have a show that is not only supremely tuneful and every bit as witty as it was when it won a 1949 Tony, ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway and revived Porter’s flagging reputation after the accident that crippled him, you are pretty certain to have a thoroughly entertaining evening.
So it is at the warm and intimate Gatehouse fringe theatre in north London where the show, directed by Ovation’s John Plews, and with a cast bursting with energy and talent, has just begun a six-week run that is well worthy of your attention as an upmarket Christmas panto, if nothing else.
The story of course involves a production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in unlovely Baltimore and the conflict on and off-stage between Fred Graham, the show’s director, and his ex-wife and leading lady Lilli Vanessi, who, of course, is playing Katherine, the shrew of the title, while Fred doubles as Petruchio. There is a subsidiary romance between Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca, and her gambler boyfriend Bill who has got two hoods, superbly played by Dominic Quinn, making his professional debut, and Martin Steven Carlton, chasing him.
Songs of the quality and durability of ’Too Darn Hot’, ‘So in Love’, ‘From This Moment On’, ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’, ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’ and those comic masterpieces ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ and ‘I Hate Men’ guarantee a winner unless a mess is made of them, and that most assuredly does not happen on the compact Gatehouse stage where the audience almost sits on top of the actors.
With a five-strong band playing their socks off on the upper level, a pared-down cast of 13, some playing three or four parts (compared with an orchestra of 28 and cast of 26 on Broadway) makes the most of every opportunity.
Sabrina Carter, so good as Minnelli in the recently-reviewed Liza, Liza, Liza at the Tabard, is a feisty shrew who acts as well as she sings, and her ‘I Hate Men’ is delivered with rare relish; Gavin Keenan is a camp and very funny ex-husband who inexplicably wants her back, and Olivia Holland-Rose, playing Lois in her first year since graduating from that hotbed of excellence, the Guildford School of Acting, absolutely nails ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’.
Robbie Durham as her boyfriend Bill, and Dean Bray, a Mountview graduate making his pro bow as Paul, also catch the eye, and the frenetic team of dancers hit the heights in Act II’s sizzling opener ‘Too Darn Hot’.
It would be a churlish critic who found much to complain about: a bit more tap-dancing would have been great, and one or two high notes were maybe a little strident for such a small auditorium, but ‘Wunderbar’ just about summed up the general impression and what John and Katie Plews have created is not just confined to the stage. A great sense of community and feel-good feeling are achieved off-stage, the programme (so often a let-down in fringe productions) is full of information, and even if it was a grey, wet evening outside, at the Gatehouse the sun is firmly in the ascendant.
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