Shakespeare in song

Kiss Me Kate (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Concert Hall

November 12

As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, 2016 has seen many of the Bard’s plays brought to theatrical life as part of the global celebration of his work. But perhaps it has been a case of saving the best for last with Opera Queensland’s final production of the year, “Kiss Me Kate”. The semi-staged concert version of Cole Porter’s multi-award winning musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” features colossal collaboration as the company is joined by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and a dynamic cast of singers and actors to bring the classic of American theatre to life.

From the moment of its opening number of Hattie (Lizzie Moore) and company singing showbiz anthem ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’, the Porter features are on show with both catchy melodies and bold, witty lyrics (Porter is one of the few composers who wrote both words and music).  And when (as was the maxim for musicals of the golden age) Act Two opens with a big syncopated dance number “Too Darn Hot” it doesn’t matter that it does not contribute to the plot, such is the addictive appeal of its jazzy 1940’s sound.

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The backstage musical revolves around a disastrous Baltimore production of “The Taming of the Shrew”; newly divorced actors Lilli (Cheryl Barker) and Fred (Peter Coleman-Wright) are the show’s bickering couple Katharine and Petruchio, both onstage and off. Add in some secondary characters, such as  Lois (Naomi Price) who plays Bianca, Katharine’s younger sister unable to marry until her shrewish sibling has found a husband, her off-stage suitors and a pair of gangsters (Bryan Proberts and Shaun Brown) intent on collecting a gambling debt from Fred and you are in for a whole lot of fun.

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Barker and Coleman-Wright are wonderful as the warring lead couple, each with their own commanding stage presence. Barker is appropriate feisty on stage as the shrewsome Katharine; proud and haughty, she is sharp-tonged in her song ‘I Hate Men’ and full of violent threats in her titular duet with Petruchio. There is melancholic beauty in her vulnerability in delivery, of ‘So in Love’ and also Coleman-Wright’s reprise of the number, with vocals that resonate with the song’s tragic resignation of unrequited love.

In her dual roles of Lois Lane and sweet Bianca, Naomi Price’s vocals are also excellent. As the charismatic actress she is the quintessential airhead ingénue, with a blunt and brassy accent of the Cyndi Lauper sort, but absolutely charming in all that she does.  With equal prowess, she delivers the tender ballad ‘Why Can’t You Behave’ to her boyfriend Bill (Jason Barry-Smith), who had just missed rehearsal because he was gambling, and later brings cheeky personality to ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ in which she defends her faithfulness to him despite seeing and accepting gifts from wealthy men.

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Cole Porter’s tuneful score is full of fabulous numbers and under the baton of Guy Noble, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra brings them to glorious life, from the gentle string sounds that accompany ‘So In Love’ to the creation of the light-hearted mood of ‘We Open in Venice’ and the buoyancy of ‘Where is the Life That Late I Led’. However, sound issues spoil some song delivery, distracting from the performance when opening lines are lost. It would be helpful, also, to have a song list included in the show’s program. Jason Glenwright’s lighting awashes the Concert Hall with luscious blues and purples and Josh McIntosh’s costumes twirl about the place to convey a real sense of its time. Even the posture and presence of performers help to take the audience back to its era.

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As a tribute to Shakespeare, the show includes borrowed lines like Hamlet’s rub. And then there is ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, which, thanks to its encore ensemble delivery will earworm with audiences for days. The humourous ditty from Probets and Brown as the dim debt-collecting thugs, is packed with puns and malapropisms and delivered with delicious vaudevillian sensibility as it explains how to pick up women though the type of forced rhymes that resonate through much of Porter’s lyrics (think ‘Let’s Fall in Love’).

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“Kiss Me Kate” is full of colour and movement as its large ensemble scatters the action amongst the orchestra and amid the whirl of props being danced on and off stage. Indeed, under the direction of Kris Stewart, performers make good use of their limited space. To present any take of “Kiss Me Kate”, semi-staged or otherwise, is sure to be an ambitious adventure (the show won the first Tony Award presented for Best Musical in 1949), but given the success of their 2015 “Candide”, this show was always going to be safe in Opera Queensland’s hands. The result is not just a triumphant comical marriage of Shakespeare and Porter, but also of orchestral and musical excellence that feels equally fresh as it does of its time.

Photos c/o – Steve Henry

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