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'Something Rotten!'

Now onstage until October 27 at the Festival Theatre, The Stratford Festival, 55 Queen Street.

Ann Baggley

Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter actor, director, adjudicator, arts educator

VOICE CHOICE

“Something Rotten! is something spectacular! All hail the return of Donna Feore!”

This week celebrates the launch of the Stratford Festival’s 72nd season offering 10 plays and two musicals. One of these musicals is “Something Rotten!” and it’s miles from its namesake. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a more entertaining and spectacularly performed musical at North America’s largest repertory company. Director and choreographer Donna Feore, whose hiatus last season was keenly noticed, has returned with another song-and-dance extravaganza that had its opening audience on its feet twice to wildly approve of the antics and breathtaking, electric choreography from a cast of incomparable triple threats.

Donna Feore is Broadway-gold! Critics and artists have celebrated her work worldwide and she’s back in top form. I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy a musical more after experiencing her 2022 runaway hit, “Chicago”. But a packed opening night performance sent the term, “musical comedy” to knee-slapping, guffaw-filled new heights. What’s more, no one seems to have heard of this fractured and fresh send up of history’s most iconic playwright. “Something Rotten!” is an irreverent telling of two racy, raucous rivals of Renaissance rock star, William Shakespeare! It debuted on Broadway on April 22, 2015 and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Curiously, it closed not two years later after only 742 performances. It deserved a much longer run!

The Bottom brothers, Nick (Mark Uhre) and Nigel (Henry Firmston), are two struggling playwrights in Tudor London. They’ve just written their new history play, ‘Richard ll’, a work they’re convinced will propel them to new heights of fame and fortune. They soon realize that celebrated playwright and actor Will Shakespeare (Jeff Lillico) has put quill to parchment and crafted his own hit version of the troubled monarch’s reign.

Broke and defeated, and desperate for new ideas for a hit play, Nick Bottom seeks out a soothsayer by the name of Thomas Nostradamus, nephew of history’s famous French forecaster (a deliciously over-the-top Dan Chameroy), who predicts the future’s bold, new theatrical genre: the musical! After hearing of this next big thing that hasn’t happened yet, where actors inexplicably break out into song and bust a move or two…or three, Nick is convinced he will conceive and perform the next million-pound hit. So begins a saucy and silly send-up of the Bard, today’s musical theatre phenoms and celebrity culture. There’s something for everyone in this brilliant production.

Stratford is a place as renowned for its musicals as it is for its Shakespeare productions. Director and choreographer Feore has ingeniously mashed the two up to create something outrageously irresistible. She has assembled a cast of 24 extraordinarily talented singers, dancers and actors and once again shows how adept she is at re-imagining entire productions to meet and maximize the demands of the Festival theatre’s thrust stage.

Her imaginative staging is spot-on, weaving fast-paced storytelling through thrilling, athletic dance that this more than capable cast is totally up for. With Feore you can expect something you’ve never seen before, something that will surprise and delight you. Feore’s Tudor take on the Bard is bombastic and breathtaking! Please don’t let her leave us again, Stratford!

As the loathsome down-on-their-luck brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, Uber-talented Mark Uhre and Henry Firmston play their sibling rivalry with aplomb. Uhre plays Nick as the sour, frustrated artist just wanting to write a hit play, get rich quick and be a superstar. He’s a singing and dancing triple threat, a gem to watch. No surprise as he had a recent Broadway stint in ‘Les Miserables’. By contrast Firmston as Nigel brings a fresh youthfulness to the quieter, more sensible and creative playwright, with his eye on the prize while finding love with the local Puritan damsel Portia (a captivating Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane). His voice is clear as a bell and his chemistry with love-interest with Portia is palpable and charming.

Jeff Lillico’s Will Shakespeare is hamming it up with his rock-star swagger, seething matinee-idol stardom and cocky pretention. His first number, “Will Power” nicely sets up the narcissist superstar. The girls love him, the boys want to be like him. He’s a curious cross between Jack Sparrow and Freddie Mercury. My only minor quip here is that I wanted him to have more fun playing up the rock star persona. Lillico is extremely talented (with a spot-on British accent) and I’m sure he’ll settle into the role as the run progresses.

Stratford favourite and musical comedy veteran Dan Chameroy is at his hilarious best as Thomas Nostradamus, the loony soothsayer who almost sees the future perfectly. His campy, over-the-top scenery chewing is comedy gold. His timing, characterization and vocal chops are in perfect sync. The show-stopping standing ovation after his big number, “A Musical” confirms his reputation as a Festival favourite. Other veteran favourites are along for this wild ride through the Renaissance.

As Portia’s father, the pompous and pontificating Puritan Brother Jeremiah, Juan Chioran is taking himself none too seriously strutting and spewing his disapproval of all things theatrical while Steve Ross has a small but memorable role as Shylock, the moneylender who loves theatre. Ross’ loveable portrayal harkens back to his heartwarming performance as Amos in “Chicago” a couple seasons back.

Honourable mentions must go to the excellent supporting performances by Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Lady Clapham, the Bottom’s patron of the arts and Starr Domingue as Bea Bottom, Nick’s caring but headstrong wife. Kudos to the entire Ladies of the Renaissance and The Bard Boys, Will’s backup dancers, gyrating and writing in sexy unison. These supporting players weren’t just ensemble dancers but invested actors portraying characters with dimension and focus. Something rarely seen in musical comedy. The entire cast was focussed on one mission – to entertain. Mission accomplished.

Set and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco are medieval period to the max. Authentic velvet dresses, ornately embroidered capes, britches, doublets, codpieces and frilly collars with a splash of leather, studs, top hats, leotards and high heels. Told you it’s a mash up. The set is simple and functional on two levels evoking Tudor timbers and wooden scaffolds.

Musical director Laura Burton deftly directs her fabulous orchestra through Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s quirky and eclectic score while lighting designer Bonnie Beecher’s impossibly replicates medieval lighting centuries before electricity before bathing the set with rock concert LEDs. Another crazy mashup.

A huge shout out to stage manager Cynthia Toushan and her team of nine dressers and assistants. With 275 costumes, changes are impossibly fast. Actors seem to come and go in completely different garb in what seems like seconds. With an entirely different production going on backstage, no change is longer than 90 seconds. One marvels at the Herculean efforts of the backstage crew needed to pull this off nightly.

If you’re not a fan of musicals or Shakespeare, you owe it to yourself to see this brilliant and innovative satire of both. I can’t remember the last time I had so much rollicking fun at the theatre.

“Something Rotten” is pure escapist entertainment. It’s hilarious, witty, filled with kitschy dialogue, clever jokes, catchy songs and WAY over-the-top characters that you’ll instantly fall in love with. You’ll laugh so hard your sides will split and your feet will be numb from non-stop tapping. ‘Something Rotten’ is something wonderful and don’t we all need a little wonderful in our lives?

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes with one interval.

‘Something Rotten!’ runs until October 27 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford. For tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca

‘Something Rotten’ BOOK BY KAREY KIRKPATRICK AND JOHN O'FARRELL
MUSIC AND LYRICS BY WAYNE KIRKPATRICK AND KAREY KIRKPATRICK
CONCEIVED BY KAREY KIRKPATRICK AND WAYNE KIRKPATRICK
DIRECTED BY DONNA FEORE
CHOREOGRAPHED BY DONNA FEORE

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