This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

THESPIANS FROM Troupe 4982 at Bradford High School have performed regularly on the International Thespian Festival main stage, with recent appearances including Freaky Friday (2018), West Side Story: School Edition (2017), Dogfight (2016), and Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2015). At ITF 2019, the troupe also presented a special late-night performance of The Scottsboro Boys accompanied by a panel discussion the following day with Susan Stroman, director-choreographer of Broadway’s Scottsboro production, and the Thespian cast.

STORY

The date is 1595, and “not everyone is getting what he wants,” according to the show’s narrator. In particular, Nick Bottom, who runs a theatre with his brother Nigel, struggles to compete with swaggering pop playwright William Shakespeare.

In fact, the brothers struggle generally, forcing Nick’s enterprising wife Bea to disguise herself as a man to earn money. Plus, wealthy patron Lord Clapham has threatened to withdraw support from the Bottoms’ theatre if they cannot pitch a viable production concept by morning — and they can’t accept money from would-be investor Shylock due to laws restricting business with Jewish patrons.

Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom struggle to compete with William Shakespeare in the Bradford High School production of Something Rotten!
Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom struggle to compete with William Shakespeare in the Bradford High School production of Something Rotten! Photo courtesy of Holly Stanfield.

Nick pilfers Bea’s money box to consult senile soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (nephew of the French celebrity prophet), who predicts the rise of musical theatre, in which actors burst into song “out of nowhere.” Nick finds the idea preposterous, but he’s desperate. Meanwhile, Nigel falls for a Puritan and fellow poetry lover named Portia — despite disapproval from both Nick and Portia’s father, Brother Jeremiah.

When the Bottom brothers offend Lord Clapham with their musical idea, Shylock begins discreetly funding the theatre, and Nostradamus predicts Shakespeare’s next hit will be Omelette, a breakfast-themed tale about a prince with a fondness for Danish pastries and ham.

After Shakespeare, in a creative reconnaissance mission of his own, is cast in the musical under the guise of “Toby Belch,” the brothers’ web of literary ambition, furtive romance, and deceit begins to unravel.

BACKGROUND

This musical about two brothers creating a show was created by … two brothers. Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick had been laughing over the idea of 16th century playwrights struggling to outdo Shakespeare since the spoof-happy 1990s. It wasn’t until 2010 that they and co-librettist John O’Farrell pitched the concept to producer Kevin McCollum.

They workshopped the show in New York with director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and originally scheduled a pre-Broadway premiere at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. When New York’s St. James Theatre became available, the show skipped straight to the Great White Way, opening in spring 2015. After its 740-performance Broadway run, the show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including best musical (it won best featured actor for Christian Borle’s portrayal of Shakespeare), and its cast recording was nominated for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

In addition to obvious Shakespeare and culinary allusions, Something Rotten! caters to theatre nerds everywhere by cooking up a scramble of lyrical Easter eggs and shameless puns, along with a soufflé of poached riffs from modern musical theatre.

TROUPE 4982’S PRODUCTION

As director Holly Stanfield put it, “Farce is a very exacting form.” Not to mention a musical farce, complete with large, complex dance numbers doubling as wacky visual gags — think tap-dancing grim reapers.

“We spent a lot of time on the language and timing of the show. To render, point, and physicalize all the comedic moments took hours,” said Stanfield. “The large production numbers are insanely fun, but tap is also a very exact form, and extended rehearsal time was necessary to clean the dance and add the comedic physicality needed to tell the story.”

Every spring, Stanfield auditions students from across Kenosha Unified School District in Wisconsin for a season of plays and musicals. “We choose shows that help our students grow by experiencing a variety of forms and stories. After the audition, we felt Something Rotten! offered the opportunity to work on comedy.”

Graduating senior Jacob Belotti was thrilled to hear the musical selection. “I had heard the song ‘I Love the Way’ from the show and thought it was hilarious,” said Belotti, recalling how, at the cast’s first read-through, “I thought it was very funny, but once we began the process, I knew it was the funniest show ever.”

According to Evelyn Alumbreros, a rising senior who played Portia, Something Rotten! was also “one of the biggest shows we have ever done at Bradford High School. It has the comedic, romantic, fun aspects, and so many more.” Added to these challenges, she said, “Many of the actors who learned tap were unsure how this would work out, but by the end everyone loved tapping so much.”

One tap tenderfoot was Belotti, who said learning the rhythm-based dance technique from scratch was “the most challenging part. I had no tap experience, so it was a journey, but it was very fun and rewarding.”

Overall, he called the show a “hysterical, satirical spectacle.” The cast is also male-heavy, Belotti pointed out, which suited “a lot of the guys in our troupe [who] like to joke around and just have fun.”

Still, Belotti found plenty of nuance to explore in the storyline and in his character, Nick, whom he described as passionate. Also: “stubborn and independent, yet gentle and caring. … He gets so caught up in wanting to be bigger than Shakespeare, he doesn’t even care if he surpasses Shakespeare on his own merit. He is so driven to succeed that he loses sight of what’s really important. At the end of the show, Nick finally gets it. His brother had been telling him the whole time: To thine own self be true.

Alumbreros applied this message to her character as well. “Portia has such a vibrant personality and a positive attitude. She is also a little rebellious in spirit as she reads poetry and meets with Nigel secretly without her father knowing,” Alumbreros said. “It took time to find who she was and how to make her realistic.”

“Realistic” may not seem like the right word for this show, but Stanfield emphasized that authenticity — of both character development and technical design — was vital to landing and balancing the lampoonery. When designing and building the “period-suggestive” costumes, as well as the Globe Theatre and other set pieces, she said, “We felt we needed to be realistic and detailed. The show needed a visual grounding in reality — in a musical theatre way — to make the anachronistic comedy even bigger.”

Not only does the show — best described by Alumbreros as “comedic, outlandish, and … eggs!” — lean heavily toward the absurd, its script and songs also reward knowledge of both Shakespeare and popular musical theatre. But according to Stanfield, you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of theatre trivia to enjoy the show.

“It was surprising to see an audience, that at times is not very Broadway savvy, enjoy and laugh honestly 95% of the time,” she said, calling opening night “the biggest highlight. … After months of practicing in an empty auditorium, to finally get the laughter and applause we were waiting for felt amazing.”

Despite extended and often repetitive rehearsals, the cast and crew never lost the show’s innate fun, according to Alumbreros. “The atmosphere and energy were always positive,” she said, noting that her favorite rehearsal highlight was an inside joke about how much she wanted to perform in the song “Black Death” but couldn’t because she was in the next scene. “My cast was super supportive and even photoshopped my face onto a photograph of one of the tap-dancing grim reapers. Throughout the whole rehearsal process, we were always smiling and laughing and having the best times.”

After countless hours tapping out precise beats and tweaking comedic pauses, the final result “was big, bold, and fulfilling,” said Stanfield. “All the work we put into language and timing paid off. Feeling the rhythm established between actor and audience every night was intoxicating. When an audience truly connects to farce, there is no better feeling in the house and onstage!”

The cast of the Bradford High School production of Something Rotten! Photo courtesy of Holly Stanfield.
  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Festival Profile: <em>A Chorus Line</em>

    Festival Profile: A Chorus Line

    North Carolina Thespians pay homage to a long-running musical

    Jun 03, 2020

    Festival Profile: <em>The Theory of Relativity</em>

    Festival Profile: The Theory of Relativity

    Illinois Thespians tell stories of connectivity

    Jun 01, 2020

    Festival Profile: <em>Puffs</em>

    Festival Profile: Puffs

    North Carolina Thespians explore flip side of a popular wizarding world

    May 27, 2020