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REVIEW: Stratford boasts a flair for the dramatic in two terrific musicals and a spooky take on Shakespeare

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stratford festival iPhoto caption: Production shots by David Hou.
/By / Jun 6, 2024
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It should be a given that the Stratford Festival is a theatrical affair. But this year, it feels like the festival has dialled up its penchant for high drama to eleven; in its musicals (and at least one of its Shakespeares), glitz and glam take centre stage, bombarding audiences with flashy dance numbers, slick scenography, and feathers dripping in sequins and feathers.

Enter Something Rotten!

In my 2023 review of Spamalot, I insisted that the festival was overdue in putting on Something Rotten!, Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s Tony Award-winning musical about Shakespeare and side-splitting puns, and voiced that I had an ardent wish to see the show’s “truly psychedelic, show-stopping song about eggs” on a Stratford stage.

Maybe Antoni Cimolino reads Intermission; either way, we’re all on the same page that this is the ideal show for Stratford. Indeed, Donna Feore’s production of the egg-cellent musical is so good it could (and should!) outlast the 2024 Stratford Festival season.

When we meet brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (played by the note-perfect Mark Uhre and Henry Firmston), they’re struggling to come up with a new idea for their womp-womp theatre troupe. At the risk of losing their patron, they need to come up with a smash — and fast.

Feeling desperate, Nick, whose ego is big enough to support both Bottom brothers, visits a soothsayer (festival favourite Dan Chameroy), who predicts that a new genre is going to take over: musicals.

“What the hell are musicals?,” asks Nick.

The answer is given to us in the first of several glorious dance numbers, and on opening night the song earned the show the first of its two mid-show standing ovations. “A Musical” makes fun of, you guessed it, musicals, and as a side effect seems to have encouraged costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco to go on an odyssey through the Stratford costume storage closets, picking recognizable pieces from dozens of past Festival show-stoppers. (My favourite’s the Dreamcoat that appears seemingly out of nowhere, but there are a lot of silly Easter eggs in this number.)

Okay, great, Nick has to write a musical. But what should it be about?

Shit. Back to the soothsayer.

It turns out that Nick’s rival, William Shakespeare (played with badass rocker flair by Jeff Lillico), is going to write the best play of his career soon, and it’s going to be called Omelette. Per the soothsayer, it will feature a Danish, as well as a dastardly uncle called Scar. (Hey, he never said he was a particularly good soothsayer.)

Well, all right. Nick knows what he has to do.

And that’s how a dance number filled with quintuple pirouettes, outrageous jumps and, yes, egg costumes, comes to grace the Festival Theatre stage.

It’s stupid. It’s irreverent. It’s choreographed to perfection. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on any stage. When the dancers return to the stage after ditching their uncooked egg costumes, it’s in a get-up so profoundly goofy that I dare not spoil it here. You simply have to see it.

A handful of side plots allow us to get to know the other important players in the Bottom brothers’ lives, including Nick’s wife Bea (a likeable but musically inconsistent Starr Domingue) and Nigel’s crush Portia (a lovely Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane). Portia’s Puritan father, too, played by a stoic Juan Chioran, makes several memorable appearances, doling out one lewd joke after the other. Something Rotten! additionally flexes a strong ensemble which does a lot of heavy lifting in this show, constantly impressing with their spins and their quick changes.

Something Rotten! is a shining, self-referential, sensational centrepiece for this year’s festival, a welcome return for Donna Feore following her year away from Stratford, with a terrific cast and hummable tunes. I’m counting down the days until I’m able to see it again. It’s egg-ceptional. 

Good news: La Cage Aux Folles, in the smaller Avon Theatre and directed by Thom Allison, is also an impressively strong musical outing for the festival. Written by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, the 1983 musical is well ahead of its time, exploring dozens of facets of queer love and a smorgasbord of showy dance numbers (choreographed for Stratford with aplomb by Cameron Carver). 

It’s a relatively simple story: Georges, the manager of a drag club in St. Tropez (played by Sean Arbuckle, whose versatility as a performer is jaw-dropping), and Albin, the club’s star performer (an out-of-this-world Steve Ross), are committed life partners, with Albin being the decidedly more flamboyant of the two. Georges has a grown son from a long-ago one-night-stand, and the time has finally come for Jean-Michel (James Daly) to get married. 

A few problems: one, Jean-Michel is, gasp, straight, and plans to marry a woman named Anne (a sweet Heather Kosik, who’s also a great dancer). Her father, however, is a notorious right-wing politician who wants to rid the world of hedonism (he’s played by Chioran in a role quite similar to his turn in Something Rotten!). How on earth can Jean-Michel introduce his two fathers, one of whom is one of the most fabulous drag queens in France, to this man?

La Cage Aux Folles is a fun-filled romp through glitter and boas, studded with great performances from Ross and Arbuckle in particular. Chris Vergara is a stand-out in his bit part as Albin’s personal assistant, milking his over-the-top French accent (and tremendous dance chops) for all they’re worth.

David Boechler’s costumes luxuriate in excess — you’ve never seen so many rhinestones on a Stratford stage — and Brandon Kleinman’s set, too, is the exception to an otherwise scenographically sparse opening week at the festival, with its flying furniture and shimmering walls.

If you loved Sean Arbuckle’s performance in Casey and Diana last year, and/or you have a penchant for raunchy dance numbers and bedazzled gowns, get thee to La Cage Aux Folles. Allison’s production is imbued with love, care, and an understanding of the importance of queer elders being able to share their stories — there couldn’t be a better show to shepherd in Pride Month.

Cymbeline, too, relishes in high drama, and especially when compared to Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Hedda Gabler, Esther Jun’s production showcases some hefty visual flair. When audiences enter the Tom Patterson Theatre, they’re all but assaulted by the maple perfume of theatrical haze, which vaults Shakespeare’s not-quite-tragedy, not-quite-comedy to a realm of spooky, mythological intrigue.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s more troublesome plays, and alas Jun’s production doesn’t offer a particularly strong case for future stagings of it. As far as the problematics of the play, are a lot of characters to keep track of, some of whom disappear mid-play without much in the way of a conclusion. And, as has been noted by many a Shakespeare scholar, the play is mistitled — it ought to be called Innogen, given the current title character isn’t actually in all too much of the play as staged here.

Gender-swapped to allow for Stratford legend Lucy Peacock to rule as Queen Cymbeline, the play has been imagined as a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, complete with an intermittently glowing tree upstage. That choice sort of works, sometimes — it’s most compelling when Cymebline’s daughter Innogen (valiantly played by Allison Edwards-Crewe) finds herself wandering the forest alone — but the production has created an iconography of trees that at best is a little confusing. What does the tree mean? Is it family? Destiny? Love? It’s never really clear.

There are a few standout actors playing secondary characters: Christopher Allen is scene-stealing as Innogen’s stepbrother Cloten, and Jordin Hall’s Posthumus is also quite strong as a romantic partner for Innogen. For me, Edwards-Crewe is the play’s beating heart, and she’s in excellent form here (I’d love to see her in one of Shakespeare’s more mainstream hits after her performances in All’s Well That Ends Well and now Cymbeline). Peacock’s as commanding as ever as the play’s monarch — I just wish she were onstage more.

Echo Zhou’s set and lights, dramaturgically strange as they might be, look great in the relatively cozy Tom Patterson Theatre, and Michelle Bohn’s costumes gleam in luxe fabrics.

All in, this was a very strong opening week for Stratford — keep an eye out for reviews of Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Hedda Gabler, the latter of which I particularly enjoyed, from Liam Donovan. And seriously: go see the musicals!


You can learn more about the Stratford Festival here.


Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy
WRITTEN BY

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.

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