Friday, March 16, 2018

Buffalo 2018: Something Rotten! Musical at Shea Theatre

When we visited Buffalo last year, we passed by the Shea's Performing Arts Center, where we were blown away by the impressive list of shows coming up for 2018, including three recent Tony nominated musicals that we hadn't watched before—School of Rock, Waitress and Something Rotten!  Since we were not sure if any of these musicals would ever play in Toronto, we discussed the idea of returning to Buffalo to watch one.  If we headed out early in the morning, we could get to Buffalo in time to watch a Saturday afternoon show and then drive home again, saving the cost of overnight accommodations.  While it initially seemed like a long way to drive in one day just to watch a show, it actually is not that much farther than going to Niagara on the Lake for the day, which we have done on multiple occasions.

We decided we would watch "Something Rotten!" since this show was based on an original story while the other two were based on movies that we had watched before and therefore were familiar with.  This turned out to be a serendipitous selection since shortly after we bought our tickets, we found out that Waitress and School of Rock would be included in our next season's theatre subscription to Mirvish Productions.  We were a bit worried about buying tickets in advance and then being hit with a major snow storm that might prevent our drive to Buffalo.  We took the chance and were rewarded with a beautiful clear day.  Again this was lucky since a blizzard descended on Buffalo the following week.

We left for Buffalo in the morning, giving ourselves plenty of time to cross the border.  Our plan was to arrive around lunchtime and have a leisurely meal somewhere near the theatre.   Good thing we took this precaution since we forgot that it was the March Break weekend and the lineups at the border took over half an hour to get through.  Once in downtown Buffalo, we were happy to learn that parking was free on the weekend.  We found Spot Coffee on Delaware Ave., which was a perfect spot to hang out before our show.  It was just 3 blocks from the theatre and provided us with soup/sandwich/salad options, coffee and free WIFI.  This coffee shop was full of character, decorated with a giant mural and offering games such as giant Tic Tac Toe boards.  I collect photos of quirky washroom signs denoting gender and was delighted to spot the Barbie and Ken Dolls on the washroom doors.  We also spotted one of the largest dogs that I have ever seen, aptly named "Bear".

When we finally entered the Shea's Performing Arts Centre, we were struck by how beautiful the interior was.  Originally called Shea's Buffalo and open in 1926 as a cinema showing silent movies, the theatre was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in Spanish/French Baroque and Rococo styles, channeling opera houses and palaces of Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Converted into a live theatre venue in the 1970s, Shea's specializes in hosting touring Broadway musicals with seating on the ground and balconies to accommodate 3100 people.  Our seats were second row from the back on the ground floor and we were really impressed with how good the sight lines were for such an old theatre, with a good stagger of seats between rows and a good rake so that the heads in front of you did not block your view of the stage.

"Something Rotten!" is a hilarious musical comedy that both pays homage to and spoofs iconic musicals of the past.  The plot is set in Elizabethan times, as described by the opening number "Welcome to the Renaissance".  Just based on this first song, we could tell that we were in for a lyrical treat, when the word "Renaissance" is cleverly rhymed with with "bon vivants" and "ambiance".  The musical is also peppered with not too subtly suggestive bawdy dialogue and lyrics including rhyming couplets like "penis" and "genius".

Nick Bottom and his brother Nigel are playwrights who aspire to match the accomplishments and fame of their rival William Shakespeare, the most acclaimed writer on the Elizabethan stage.  Nick in particular is jealous of "the Bard" and yearns to surpass him.  Under pressure to come up with a new idea for a successful play, Nick visits the soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (the less talented cousin of the famous French seer) to find out what will be the next big trend in plays.  Imagine Nick's surprise when he learns the hears that it will be the musical, where out of the blue, "an actor stops speaking his lines and starts singing for no apparent reason."  As Nick protests the absurdity of this, he ironically breaks into song himself, drawing a huge laugh from the audience.

Nostradamus continues to explain this new phenomenon with the song "It's A Musical", a tour de force number that references multiple musicals in rapid succession, through snippets of melody, lyrics, dance steps, an iconic pose or gesture, costumes and props.  Coming fast and furious are tributes to classics including Avenue Q, Les Miserables, Music Man, South Pacific, Chicago, Rent, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Jesus Christ Superstar, Annie, Sweet Charity, A Chorus Line, and more.  We first watched a rendition of this performance at the 2015 Tony Awards and were blown away by the number.  I remember thinking at the time that I really wanted to watch this musical, so I was delighted to get the opportunity, even though it meant driving to Buffalo.

Armed with the notion of creating a musical, Nick still struggles to come up with a viable plot for his new play.  His first attempt, "The Black Death" about the plague did not go over well with his sponsors.  So he returns to the soothsayer to ask him to look into the future and reveal Shakespeare's most successful upcoming play.  Nostradamus receives jumbled images that lead him to conclude that Shakespeare's masterpiece is called "Omelette" although he also sees references to "Ham" and "Danish".  Nick concludes that the play must be about breakfast and hilarity ensues as he goes on to write and mount this musical with his reluctant brother Nigel.  The musical homages continue in Nick's show-stopping number "Make an Omelette", with references to Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Gypsy, The Man of La Mancha, La Cage Aux Folles, Cats and more.  This really was a treat for any lover of musicals and it became quite the game to recognize the references that zipped by one after another.

It was impressive how some songs incorporated actual lines from Shakespeare's works including  Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"), Richard III ("Now is the winter of our discontent"), and Romeo and Juliet (".. it is the East and Juliet is the sun").  William Shakespeare is portrayed as a arrogant rock star-like character who sings these lines in tunes that have elements of rock, gospel and even rap music.  Nigel sings an entire ballad was based on Polonius' famous line from Hamlet ("To Thine Own Self Be True") and the words fit perfectly into the story line.  Several of the other roles in Something Rotten! are named after characters in Shakespeare's other works, including Nick's wife Bea (Beatrice from "Much Ado About Nothing"), Nigel's love interest Portia and a Jewish money lender Shylock (both from "Merchant of Venice") and a judge named Falstaff (from "Henry IV and Henry V").  It is also laudable that the two female leads (Bea and Portia) are portrayed as strong, intelligent, brave and heroic women.

Something Rotten! is the funniest, most entertaining musical that I've watched in a while.  If it ever comes to Toronto, I would be happy to watch it again and would encourage anyone else to do so as well.  This experiment with driving to Buffalo to watch a matinee was a rousing success.  We will keep our eyes out on what shows arrive next at Shea's Performing Arts Centre and might be tempted to do this again.  The only worry would be trying not to select a show that we could subsequently watch in Toronto at a fraction of the cost.  I guess there are worse problems to have than to have access to great theatre at home.

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