Review: Satire shakes up Shakespeare in new musical

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There’s nothing off, spoiled or mouldy about The Shakespeare Company and StoryBook Theatre’s co-production of the 2015 Broadway musical Something Rotten.

It’s two hours of unabashed, unapologetic, slapstick tomfoolery showcasing some of the city’s finest musical theatre talent.

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Something Rotten is an irreverent satire of Shakespeare’s enduring fame and the traditions of musical theatre.

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It’s 1595, and the English Renaissance has made rock stars of its writers, poets and playwrights, and none is more rocking than The Bard of Avon. Before he became the biggest name in English theatre, Shakespeare was a member of The Botton Brothers company. As Will’s star rose, Nick and Nigel Bottom’s sank. Desperate to have a hit, Nick consults the self-appointed oracle, Tomas Nostradamus, nephew of the famous soothsayer, to see what the next big thing in theatre will be. Nostradamus tells Nick that musicals will one day be more popular than any play Shakespeare ever wrote, so Nick is determined to create the first British musical, and, you just know everything that can go wrong does.

Julia Bleichert, Tory Doctor, Shayla Fiveland, and the ensemble of Something’s Rotten. Photo, Tim Nguyen cal

In what amounts to a gloriously unrestrained performance, Joel Schaefer plays Nick as a steamrolling buffoon. He’s like a young version of Broadway legends Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. Like them, Schaefer has a powerful voice and knows how to take vocal command of every one of his musical numbers, especially God, I Hate Shakespeare; A Musical; and Something Rotten. He’s fearless in his physicality and is a master of comic invention.

With much help from his leather outfit, Tory Doctor gives Shakespeare a kind of Mick Jagger swagger, bursting onto the stage with a raucous ensemble number called Will Power that had the opening night audience cheering and stomping their feet. He gets to tease more subtle reactions from his second act number, It’s Hard to be the Bard. This Shakespeare is a bit of a villain, and Doctor revels in revealing his Mephistophelian nastiness.

As Nostradamus, a befuddled oracle who is past his prime, Hal Kerbes proves he can slamdunk a joke with as much skill and ease as he does a musical number. It’s a virtuoso performance that invites the audience to have as much fun as he’s having.

It turns out Nigel Botton is the real genius of Renaissance England, and Christopher Sherwood plays him as a plaintive reluctant hero who falls in love with Portia (Taylor Rae Steedman) the daughter of the Puritan preacher Brother Jeremiah (Joey Gruszecki). Their bumbling attempts at courtship are sweetly silly, but their love duets have the required emotional gusto.

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The supporting cast boasts strong, memorable performances from Gianna Read-Skelton as Nick’s wife Bea, Nicholas Chamberlain as the minstrel, Ben Jaquish as Shylock the money lender, and Steven Morton as the cross-dressing member of Nick’s troupe.

Terry Gunvordahl’s set is as attractive as it is functional, and Melissa Mitchell Boychuk’s costumes add to the visual fun of the show.

JP Thibodeau’s direction is inventive, sly, and peppered with bawdy sexual innuendo. His stage is always a flurry of activity, ensuring a boisterous look and feel. Greg Pember’s choreography is consistently energetic, especially in the big production numbers A Musical and Make An Omelette, which pay tribute to many famous Broadway musicals.

The lyrics of the songs provide so much of the show’s humour, so whenever the music dwarfs the singers, those wonderful jokes are lost.

Something Rotten runs in the Beddington Theatre Arts Centre at 375 Bermuda Drive N.W. until April 21.

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