Theatre preview: Kiss Me Kate, Leeds Grand

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Opera North is stepping away from its classical core to stage as its season opener the popular Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate. Nick Ahad reports.

In 2012 Opera North made the surprising announcement that its season was going to include the staging of Carousel.

At the time I spoke to the company’s chief, Richard Mantle, and suggested – before the show had been premiered – that it was a somewhat risky choice. Something that might alienate the Opera North faithful.

Mantle was having none of it. At the time he told me: “If you look at the history of the company, we have staged a number of musicals regularly as part of our programme. We have staged Sweeney Todd, Show Boat. Musicals are in our DNA.” Any sceptics were proved wrong once Carousel opened in 2012 – and returned to the company’s repertoire this year – and was a huge success with critics, audiences, opera lovers and fans of musicals.

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The company’s new season opens tonight at Leeds Grand Theatre with another musical – Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.

The company is giving itself the best chance of replicating the critical response it received for Carousel: the director Jo Davies, who created magic with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 2012, has been brought back to helm this production. “I think it’s really important that a company with the resources to do something on a scale like this stages these musicals. It gives people the opportunity to remember why they are such great musicals,” says Davies.

“Most audiences will have seen a slightly watered down version because the budget requirements are huge.”

She does, however, admit that there is one tricky aspect of working on a musical with an opera company. You have to work with opera singers, musicals stars and, in this production, dancers. “The truth is, they all do need slightly different things,” says Davies. “The opera singers are obviously not quite so confident when it comes to the text, so you have to work with them a little more on that. What’s interesting to see is that the performers are all learning new skills and it’s amazing to see when they realise that there is no limit to what they can do. That’s very interesting.”

Tiffany Graves and Ashley Day are two of the musical stars working for an opera company for the first time. “It’s terrifying. Singing and dancing, acting, that’s what we do, but when you get up and have to sing in front of opera singers for the first time, it’s incredibly nerve-wracking,” admits Graves.

Graves and Day play Bianca and Lucentio in the musical – although they also play Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun, given the doubling that happens in Cole Porter’s story.

Kiss Me Kate is set both on and off-stage during the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Porter’s musical revolves around the tempestuous love lives of actor-manager Fred Graham and his leading lady and ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi. Thrown into the mix are Fred’s current paramour Lois Lane, her gambler boyfriend Bill – and a couple of gangsters who somehow get caught up in the show. It allows the production to skim over some of the more troublesome parts of Shakespeare’s original story – it is impossible to ignore the rampant sexism in the play – and play it purely for joy.

The music certainly helps. Porter’s jazz-influenced score, which will be played by the full orchestra of Opera North in this latest production, includes songs like Another Op’nin Another Show, So in Love, Always True to You in My and Too Darn Hot.

The opera singers taking the lead roles of Katherine and Lilli Vanessi is Jeni Bern and starring as Fred Graham and Petruchio is Quirijn de Lang. Do they feel at all like they’re somehow ‘dumbing down’ by sharing the stage with ‘musical performers’. Neither of them appear at all perturbed by the notion.

“We’re having an absolute ball,” says Bern. “We’re all learning from each other.”

Kiss Me Kate, Leeds Grand Theatre, various dates until October 31. Tickets 0844 8482700.

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