Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

something rotten

Something Rotten At The Stratford Festival

When I saw Something Rotten on Broadway in 2015, I knew it was destined for the Stratford Festival. Not everyone at Stratford was as keen on the idea as I was, or at least so I was told.

Fortunately, saner (or at least less stuffy) minds prevailed and Something Rotten, the deliriously, kaleidoscopically funny musical by brothers Karey (music, lyrics, book) and Wayne Kirkpatrick (music, lyrics) and John O’Farrell (book), is finally gracing the Stratford Festival’s main stage.

The news that Donna Feore would direct and choreograph augured well, and I was optimistic that she would better the 2015 Something Rotten. Well, she comes damn close.

Something Rotten pokes scabrously transgressive fun at the cult of “The Bard,” while at the same time taking loving satiric aim at most of the famous musicals of our lifetime.

It tells the entirely fictional tale of the aptly named Bottom brothers, Nick (Mark Uhre) and Nigel (Henry Firmston), playwrights and wannabe theatrical impresarios in Elizabethan London who struggle in the shadow of William Shakespeare (Jeff Lillico), depicted as an arrogant, self-absorbed rock star. The Bottoms loathe their rival’s undeserved fame, not to mention his uncanny ability to anticipate their every new idea.

The Bottoms are about to lose the patronage of Lady Clapham (a sumptuous Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah), so in desperation Nick seeks out the soothsayer Nostradamus (Dan Chameroy), not the famous one but his nephew Thomas who is, not to mince words, several cards short of a tarot deck.

Asked to predict the next “big thing” in theatre, Nostradamus peers into his cloudy crystal ball and, in perhaps the show’s best number, envisions . . . MUSICALS!

Nick takes the bait and the rest of Something Rotten cascades into a convoluted plot that includes an abortive first stab at Elizabethan musical comedy (would you believe The Black Death?), a duplicitous, thieving William Shakespeare, Nick’s heroic wife, the proto-feminist Bea (Starr Domingue), and an evil Puritan (Juan Chioran) who wants to see the Bottoms topless, that is beheaded.

Something Rotten is littered with references to the Shakespeare canon – riffs on Romeo and Juliet (which perhaps not so coincidentally is also playing at Stratford this season), a money lender named Shylock, a trial scene, a woman disguised as a lawyer – all of which allow those of us who barely passed English Lit to pat ourselves on the back for picking up on them.

The real subject of Something Rotten, however, is is the dog-eat-dog world of show biz rivalry with a special emphasis on the American musical. I lost count of the number of musicals referenced in the script and in Feore’s witty choreography and I’m sure I missed a few.

In two razzle-dazzle would-be show stopping numbers (“A Musical,” and ”Make An Omelette”), Feore uses every choreographic device in her not inconsiderable bag of tricks, including an obligatory (and breathtaking) tumbling run by Devon Michael Brown.

All of this is, if not exactly highbrow, quite funny, sometimes hysterically so. Those with weak bladders are encouraged to wear absorbent undergarments.

The cast is pretty much perfect. I was so happy to see Mark Uhre, as Nick Bottom, get the kind of leading role that he so richly deserves, although once again I find myself bemoaning the fact that he didn’t get to dance more. As his anachronistically feminist wife and “right hand man” Bea, Starr Domingue, had a great deal of fun saving the family exchequer by disguising herself as a man.

In a romantic subplot with echoes of Romeo and Juliet, Henry Firmston as Nigel, the more grounded and talented of the brothers Bottom, and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, as Portia, a Puritan girl with a politically incorrect love of poetry, make a lovely couple. Their entire arc is pure theatrical hokum that’s as old as the hills and it works beautifully.

Dan Chameroy is delightfully hammy as Nostradamus, whom he plays rather like the older, brain-addled brother of his Plumbum persona. Jeff Lillico makes for a terrifically oily Shakespeare, although I was puzzled as to why he had the only English accent in the cast.

Steve Ross, who has the lead in Cage Aux Folles this season, was out as Shylock at the performance I caught. His understudy, Eric Abel, acquitted himself admirably but Something Rotten without Ross was a bit of a drag. Ah well, a good excuse to return.

The artistic contributions – sets and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco, lighting by Bonnie Beecher, music direction by Laura Burton, and sound by Haley Parcher – are all first-rate without drawing overdue attention to themselves, which is just as it should be.

My one complaint was that the enunciation in the musical numbers, including some of the solos, could use work. As the season progresses I expect these flaws will get ironed out.

Feore’s Something Rotten lacks the two show-stopping musical numbers that the Broadway original boasted, although it’s obvious from the way the cast pauses and preens after each of them that they live in hope. Perhaps, in time.

Still, Something Rotten is destined to be the “hot ticket” at Stratford this season. To extemporize from my native wit, ’tis not as deep as a well nor so wide as church door but ’tis more than enough, ’twill serve.

Something Rotten plays at the Festival Theatre through October 27, 2024, unless it is extended, which is a strong possibility. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.

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