Review: Kiss Me Kate. May Hall, Trent College. LEOS.

It’s artistically hard and financially crippling when a show bombs. But, way back in the mid 1940s the famous composer and lyricist Cole Porter found himself with failing health and Linda Lee Thomas, his wife of 35 years, was seriously ill.  To add injury to injury he had suffered from back-to-back failures with his shows Seven Lively Arts and Around The World. Cole Porter moved in very elevated circles and his reputation for hit shows was vital to maintain his artistic credentials and social world and pay the bills.

During this time integrated musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma had begun to conquer the musical theatre world. Porter confessed at the time that Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma made things difficult for creatives used to old fashioned ways of working. He famously said “Those two, made it much harder for everybody else: the librettos are much better, and the scores are much closer to the librettos than they used to be.”

Kiss Me Kate became the next show that Cole Porter created – a show within a show – and contrary to theatrical beliefs at the time – he brought the world of William Shakespeare into the musical’s story. Shakespeare was held in such snobbish and elitist high regard that even putting one of his comical works ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ into a ‘flimsy and fanciful’ genre such as the musical was considered almost artistic suicide. But it worked and Kiss Me Kate was a triumph from the off. After an initial two-year run-in New York the show moved to London’s West End for a one year run. It has been revived on numerous occasions. Even the British poet W.H Auden provocatively said “Kiss Me Kate is a wonderfully evocative show – greater than Shakespeare’s.”

Once a key show in the calendar of many an amateur Operatic Society or Musical Theatre group in the 60s and 70s, Kiss Me Kate has been superseded by more modern shows but it is a delight that LEOS have chosen to present this classic from the 1940s and give it a well-deserved airing at May Hall Theatre at Trent College Long Eaton, and it is a ‘well-worth seeing’ terrifically performed production playing until Saturday 1st April.

For those not in the know Kiss Me Kate boasts such fine and witty songs such as ‘Another Op’nin, Another Show’, ‘Wunderbar’, ‘I Hate Men’, ‘Tom Dick or Harry’, ‘Too darn Hot’, ‘Where Is The Life That Late I had?’, ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ and the tile song ‘Kiss Me Kate’.  The musical was written by playwrights Bella and Sam Spewack with Cole Porter as lyricist and composer. History books about the theatre tell us that it was his most popular show and most accomplished musical.

Kathryn McAuley directs LEOS’ Kiss Me Kate with generous fine tuning and theatrical know-how and her talented amateur cast and live band led by Giles Pettit, respond with some dedicated and terrific performances throughout the evening. It is no doubt a joy to be part of and certainly a joy to listen to and watch. It may be set in Baltimore and fictional Padua but this show is ear worm city.

Reiterating the programme notes, if I may, Kiss Me Kate is not without its outmoded attitudes and language and Kathryn McAuley has tried to address some of this by ensuring that the female characters have more agency, that the stage directions are up-dated and that the gender balance in the whole show is considered. Fear not theatre lovers– it still retains the humour and charm for which it is renowned.

As the show bursts open with the song ‘Another Op’ning Another Show’ led by Hattie (Emma Collins) and ensemble we can be assured that this is gonna be a winner. And it is. The choreography by Rachel Murray generally works although there is one big scene containing  large group dance which appears over-crowded and somewhat immobile. Other dances are energetic, well executed and sometimes deliberately amusing.

Anna McAuley (Lilli Vanessi/Katherine Minola) and Gavin Owen (Fred Graham/Petruchio) lead the show as the divorcees forced to work together in The Taming of The Shrew with the inevitable showdowns and disagreements. Both have excellent voices and comedic gifts beyond what one might assume more than acceptable for an amateur production. Their onstage presences are very professional in acting and singing quality. Anna McAuley is truly outstanding as a fine performer and singer and is perfection in her role/s.

This humorous production is blessed with many nuanced and stand-out performances in particular from Josie Coleman (Lois Lane/Bianca Minola), Robert McAuley (Bill Calhoun/Lucentio) and Louise McGowan and Amy Glover as a highly amusing pair of gangsters.

In the amateur theatre world of Derby and Nottinghamshire there have been some very high-quality musical theatre shows of late and LEO’s terrific production of Kiss Me Kate stands at the top of the list. Highly recommended. Kiss Me Kate runs until Saturday 1st April.

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