Both of last year’s Chichester mainstage musical revivals of Sweeney Todd and Singin’ in the Rain are playing successfully in the West End, and now this year’s Kiss Me Kate had already been announced to transfer to the Old Vic in November even before it opened in Chichester. That’s partly a show of confidence in director Trevor Nunn, who has had recent associations with both venues â€“ the Old Vic has also come on board as co-producer.
A scene from Kiss Me Kate at the Festival Theatre, Chichester Photo: Tristram Kenton
Nunn is also coincidentally the second time a one-time artistic director of the RSC has tackled this musical â€“ Adrian Noble actually did it while in office at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1986, before it transferred to the West End. There’s an obvious connection, given this 1948 Broadway musical’s debt to Shakespeare in its backstage story of the out of town tryout in Baltimore for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. For Nunn, it adds to the stack of 30 Shakespeare plays and 20 musicals he has previously directed.
Far from it being comfortable ground for Nunn, he approaches it with the tentative unease of a mash-up between the proper reverence due to Shakespeare and the irreverence of its portrait of backstage life and the way it (self) consciously seems to be imitating the art it is portraying, as two actors - who divorced a year earlier - now play the warring couple of Shakespeare’s play.
The production is certainly lavish in Rob Jones’ sumptuously designed sets and costumes, and Cole Porter’s delightful score is given a jazzy, brassy new feel by musical director Gareth Valentine, but elsewhere the production often feels over-extended. The comedy is delivered with a particularly heavy hand â€“ despite the ever-capable David Burt and Clive Rowe as the supposedly comic gangsters, there’s not a laugh to be had, even in their usually infallible Brush Up Your Shakespeare number.
Hannah Waddingham brings an elegantly imposing figure in both looks and clear, powerful soprano voice to the role of Lilli Vanessi, the returning Hollywood star who is playing Kate in the show within the show, though she had a worrying moment when I feared a Janet Jackson-style revelation. Alex Bourne is solid and attractive as Fred Graham, reminiscent of a younger Philip Quast.
But the biggest presence is Adam Garcia in the comparatively small role of Bill Calhoun, the hoofer whose gambling debts drive the subplot. He’s an utterly effortless mover, and steals every scene he is in. Jason Pennycooke also makes a serious dance impression in Too Darn Hot, although the transformation of that song into a big jazz ballet setpiece overdoes it.
It’s a frequent indulgence of the production to linger too far and too long on scenes that should move faster. The production ends up more sluggish than charming as a result. In the mirthless proceedings, the songs - irrepressible and irresistible still - are the main life rafts to climb aboard to extract the evening’s pleasures from.