Stage Door Review

Something Rotten!

Thursday, May 30, 2024


music & lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick & Karey Kirkpatrick, book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell, directed by Donna Feore

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

May 28-October 27, 2024

Nick: “I find it hard to believe that people would actually pay to see something like this”

On opening night of the musical Something Rotten! was greeted with tumultuous applause. The show had already been stopped twice by spontaneous standing ovations, a rare event even on opening nights. Opening night audiences for musicals at the Stratford Festival tend to be giddy, but I’ve never seen one so willing to shower a show with acclaim.

For my part, I found this wild reception a profoundly depressing experience. Did no one recognize that Something Rotten! is the lowest quality musical Stratford has ever staged? Not one song in the show is memorable – even those that are reprised to death. The two mid-show standing ovations coincided with the only two big dance numbers in the show as if the audience had had an insatiable thirst for dance. The show’s humour and language seem to be pitched at adolescent boys for whom multi-functioning penises are a new experience. As Nick Bottom sings, “In fact, I'd give my left / Nad to be Shakespeare”.

Something Rotten! (2015) by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick is the latest in a series of satirical musicals that Stratford has staged for people who don’t really like musicals. This series began with The Rocky Horror Show in 2018 and continued with Little Shop of Horrors in 2019 and Spamalot in 2023. Something Rotten!doesn’t come close to the humour or musical interest of the earlier three. Stratford has chosen the show because Shakespeare is a character and a competition between Shakespeare and musicals is central to the action, just as it is in the offerings at the Festival.

The story, such as it is, is set in London in 1595 and concerns the brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom who are trying to write a hit play. Shakespeare, however, who used to be part of their company, has set off on his own and is now the superstar playwright of England. Nick and his wife Bea are desperate for money. Bea sets out to work disguised as a man and Nick uses the couple’s saving to consult the soothsayer Nostradamus – not the famous one who died in 1566 but his nephew Thomas.

Nick wants to know what the next big thing in theatre will be so that he and Nigel can get there before Shakespeare. According to Thomas the next big thing, much to Nick’s incredulity, will be musicals. This leads to the only clever number in the entire show, “A Musical”, where Thomas explains in song how people will clamour for plays where the characters suddenly break into song.

After a failed attempt to write in such a form, Nick consults Thomas again to ask what Shakespeare’s greatest play will be. Peering into the murky future, Thomas says that it will be a work called “Omelette”. (The entire plot hinges on a bad pun.) Meanwhile, Nigel and a Puritan girl named Portia fall in love.

Act 1 is all exposition. Act 2 contains a lot of filler before the payoff, namely the performance of “Omelette”. The filler includes a dream sequence of what Puritans might do if they suddenly liked the theatre instead of condemning it and a pointless development where Shakespeare, who has regularly stolen his best lines from Nigel, infiltrates the Bottoms’s troupe in order to learn more about their latest show. The conflicts are resolved by a deus ex machina – a bit of foolishness since there’s no reason why this particular deus would want to resolve the conflicts. The show ends with non-satirical praise for the New World as a “land of opportunity”, without mentioning that the opportunity is only for White people.

What passes for wit in the dialogue is a number of random quotations from Shakespeare, random references to musicals and allusions to the various functions of the penis. Nick learns that Nigel will be meeting Shakespeare in the park. “Oh, Shakespeare in the park”, Nick says to great laughter from the audience. More laughter when Thomas predicts there will be a musical in the future about singing cats. Even more laughter when the Puritan leader brother Jeremiah notices he’s holding the end of his cane in a suggestive manner.

As a choreographer, Donna Feore exhausts all her imagination in the first big tap number accompanying “A Musical”. After that, the dance elements she adds to what is definitely not a dance musical are repetitions of what we’ve seen before. She gives us something new only when we get to the dance numbers in “Omelette”, but then the novelty comes not so much from the choreography as from Michael Gianfrancesco’s fantastic costumes. Given the unmemorable songs, the lame dialogue and the presence of only one non-gimmicky dance number, Something Rotten! feels like an originally hour-long Fringe show that has been padded out to twice its length.

The saddest aspect of the show is that Feore as director has encouraged a number of otherwise excellent actors to give grossly over-the-top performances. My pleasure at seeing that Mark Uhre had a starring role at last on the Festival stage was seriously alloyed by all the mugging, shouting and frequent screaming that he employed in playing Nick Bottom. Uhre still has a strong singing voice that gleams in its upper notes. It’s no wonder he was such a fine Enjorlas in Les Misérables, Bert in Mary Poppins and Ralph in H.M.S. Pinafore. It’s too bad the Kirkpatrick brothers’ score offers so few opportunities for his singing to shine.

I was also pleased to see that Jeff Lillico also had a starring role on the Festival stage. Since his Shakespeare is conceived of as a rockstar poet, he is really allowed to go as far over the top as he wants, though one does wonder why Shakespeare is the only character with a British accent when the show in entirely set in England. Lillico is also a fine singer as he has shown as Fabrizio in The Light in the Piazza, Pirelli in Sweeney Todd and Matt in The Fantasticks. The Kirkpatricks give Shakespeare a hard rock entrance song “Will Power”, but the music is maddeningly bland and the orchestra drowns out the words.

As Thomas Nostradamus, Dan Chameroy, a star at Stratford as Dr. Frank N. Furter in Rocky Horror, the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors and Billy’s Father in Billy Elliot, ought to have been a welcome presence, but, unfortunately, he was simply weird. From his makeup it was hard to know if he was aiming to look like an aged human being or Old Deuteronomy from Cats. He put on a funny voice, adopted a funny posture and seemed allowed whatever self-indulgence he chose.

Juan Chioran has been missed at the Festival for some years but his role as Brother Jeremiah only gave him room to wander about upbraiding sinners in the same piercing tone, with every criticism inevitably leading to some reference to an erection. Only in a pointless dream sequence is his character allowed to loosen up, and then we get at least a small glimpse of Chioran’s great talent.

Other actors were allowed to play their roles more or less straight. Prime among these was Henry Firmston as Nigel Bottom. As the quieter and more poetic of the brothers, Firmston’s performance was sympathetic and appropriately unostentatious compared to Uhre’s. Firmston has a clear, tenor voice and the Kirkpatricks at least give Nigel two ballad-like songs that Firmston carried off well.

In other roles, Starr Domingue as Nick’s wife Bea holds her own as the one rational character in the show. She reveals herself a master of comedy in her encounters while in male disguise with Nick. Domingue shows off her powerful voice to great effect in the song “Right Hand Man” and its reprise. As Portia, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane is a delightful presence. Her singing is best when slow and steady, but in rapid passages her words become blurred.

The production depressed me most because such an array of fine talent had been wasted on material unworthy of it. For a faux-Tudor musical, I would much rather revisit Six (2017) by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow because the music is so much more inventive and the lyrics so much cleverer than those in Something Rotten! For a faux-biographical story about Shakespeare and his contemporaries, I would much rather re-view the movie Shakespeare in Love (1998) or re-see the play from 2014 by Lee Hall based on it. The movie and play are infinitely stronger in capturing the spirit of the period and in wittily satirizing the subject of Shakespeare and his inspiration.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Mark Uhre as Nick Bottom and the ensemble, © 2024 Ann Baggeley; Jeff Lillico as Shakespeare, @ 2024 David Hou; Harry Firmston as Nigel Bottom and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane as Portia, © 2024 David Hou.

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