Michael Billington 

Kiss Me Kate – review

This is a joyous show that owes much to the brilliant, infinitely varied choreography of Stephen Mear, writes Michael Billington
  
  

Cole Porter's cosmopolitan chic essentially belonged to the 1930s, but he enjoyed a late, great hit in 1948 with this backstage story: one that shows the battling relationship of the once-married Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham re-enacted as they play Kate and Petruchio in what someone here wittily, though perhaps anachronistically, dubs Shrew: the Musical. It's a glorious show that gets a pitch-perfect revival from Trevor Nunn and many of his regular musical team.

Nunn seizes on the key fact that Sam and Bella Spewack's book is a piece of Broadway Pirandello in which life and art become virtually inseparable. When the wonderful Hannah Waddingham sings I Hate Men with teeth-baring ferocity, you're not sure whether her anger stems from the character of Kate or from Lilli's fury at Fred's dalliance with an ex-nightclub hoofer. Equally, Alex Bourne's rousing tribute in Where Is the Life That Late I Led? to his old Italianate flames (including the lovely Lisa who gave "new meaning to the leaning tower of Pisa") is part Petruchio, part the recollection of a showbiz Casanova. Only Lilli's final song of submission lacks the irony we expect of contemporary Kates.

But it's a joyous show that owes much to the brilliant, infinitely varied choreography of Stephen Mear. In Wunderbar, as danced by Fred and Lilli in their dressing room, he captures the romantic delicacy of old-style operetta. Too Darn Hot, led by Jason Pennycooke as Fred's dresser, becomes a jazzy exploration of sexual tension with echoes of the rump-brandishing style of Bob Fosse. And Brush Up Your Shakespeare is performed by David Burt and Clive Rowe as a pair of gangsters who learned to love the Bard in the prison library, with a stateliness that reminded me of Laurel and Hardy.

Virtuosic staging takes precedence over verbal clarity only in Holly Dale Spencer's rendering of Always True to You in My Fashion. But this is a minor blip in a show that looks handsome in Robert Jones's pastiche commedia designs, and that, thanks to Nunn, gives Porter's scintillating numbers a precise emotional context. After last year's Sweeney Todd, this confirms Chichester as the home of the first-rate musical revival.