Although “Kiss Me, Kate” is easily the finest musical Cole Porter wrote, it has one dud song: “Bianca.” The big surprise of Chichester Festival Theater’s splashy, splendidly designed new production is that even with a wholly rewritten (uncredited) lyric, “Bianca” is the most tonally consistent and joyously relaxed number of the night. Ironically, however, the shimmering ease that a seemingly airborne Adam Garcia brings to Stephen Mear’s choreography points up overplayed exertion elsewhere. Happily, the lead perfs generate enough high-spirits to give wing to Trevor Nunn’s occasionally effortful production.
It’s tough, from a design perspective, to put this double-plotted revamp of “The Taming of the Shrew” on Chichester’s wide-open thrust stage, a space in which you cannot hide trucks or set-pieces. But Robert Jones opens up its full potential by erecting a jauntily angled, gilt-edged proscenium arch, replete with plush red velvet curtain, at the back of the stage. The full stage space then simultaneously functions as both the backstage and onstage areas and also allows full depth for the numerous dance numbers.
Jones then creates the show-within-the-show sets via an succession of huge, veil-like, black-and-white cloths cunningly drawn out of a box and erected by the actors. Not only is this charmingly effective, it underlines the all-important notion of the actors as a troupe of strolling players putting on a show.
Having deleted the overture, Nunn and musical director Gareth Valentine define the backstage characters at the theater during their neatly extended version of “Another Openin’, Another Show.” Relationships and the relative status of everyone backstage in Baltimore are hereby smartly established, not least that between Lilli (marvellously high-status, arched eyebrowed Hannah Waddingham) and big-voiced, big-chested Alex Bourne channelling Howard Keel as Fred.
An ideally cast Waddingham is clearly having a ball and the effect is infectious, not least in her rip-snorting “I Hate Men,” her acting chops happily indivisble from her commanding singing voice. It helps her — and everyone else — that every word can be heard thanks to Paul Groothuis’s sound design, pin-sharp even when the voices are riding Valentine’s cheerfully blowsy and brassy band. The latter is only 12 pieces but they sound much richer than that.
Holly Dale Spencer has been encouraged to overdo the dim bulb nature of Lois with the result that her relationship with Garcia’s Bill doesn’t have enough life. David Burt and Clive Rowe, meanwhile, are seriously on the money as particularly droll gangsters.
Not all of Nunn’s later detailing is entirely felicitous. Having directed thirty of Shakespeare’s plays, he’s over-inclined to have every surviving word of Shakespeare in the text given the kind of weight that a full production of “Shrew” should have. But the plotting of “Kiss Me, Kate” is neater in conceit than it is in execution, and there are times when you wish everyone would simply act faster.
As expected, Mear’s gleaming choreography steals the show. But even here the effort occasionally shows through. “Tom, Dick or Harry” is so busy showing off multiple patterns, styles and tempo changes that it fails to build cumulative energy. The same problem stalks the first part of the extended “Too Darn Hot” but, halfway through, his meshing with Valentine’s dance arrangements start to build a head of steam that ultimately blows the roof off.
This production isn’t groundbreaking — but with a work already fully acknowledged as great, it needn’t be. Future life has already been secured with a transfer to London’s Old Vic in November. If everyone can keep up the daunting energy levels, this certain summer hit should prove a London winter-warmer.