Orpheus pokes fun at musical theatre with ‘Something Rotten’

Members of the Something Rotten cast rehearse a dance move.
After being canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orpheus Theatre is getting set to perform Something Rotten at Meridian Theatre from June 2-11. Photo by Zenith Wolfe.

By Zenith Wolfe

Stage performers are used to being heckled by crowds. This summer, however, a local theatre company is heckling itself with its final production for the season.

From June 2-11, Orpheus Musical Theatre will perform Something Rotten at Meridian Theatre in Centrepointe. The non-profit based in Wellington Village has been producing musical performances in Ottawa since 1906 with the goal of developing local talent.

Orpheus was planning to put on the award-winning show before the 2020 season was cancelled by the pandemic, according to production manager Jim Robertson. He said they’re currently trying to draw audiences back to the theatre and put on productions with bigger casts, so the production team decided to carry the idea forward into the 2023 season.

Based on a book by Karey Kirkpatrick, Something Rotten is set in a fictional world where two brothers consult a psychic in an attempt to write more successful plays than their rival, Shakespeare. Performers parody many famous plays as the psychic shows the brothers the future of musical theatre. Robertson said the show mostly pokes fun at musicals, so it doesn’t have any particular message.

“We’re not trying to change anybody’s mind about anything,” he said. “It’s strictly for fun.”

Stage director and Hintonburg resident Debbie Guilbeault said the show is joyful: it has “a stellar cast, hummable tunes, and large production numbers.” It also references many musical theatre works, but not to the extent that it alienates audiences, she added.

Members of Orpheus’ Something Rotten sit in front of music sheets.
Rehearsals for Something Rotten are based out of the Orpheus Musical Theatre located at 17 Fairmont Ave. Photo by Zenith Wolfe.

“The play itself has many, many allusions to Shakespeare’s works, so people who know Shakespeare will chuckle along to those references,” she said. “Our Shakespeare character is the rockstar of the Renaissance, and he’s portrayed that way.”

In addition to being the stage director, Guilbeault is also the show’s choreographer. Robertson, who has performed with Orpheus many times since he joined in 1984, said they made this uncommon decision because every show has unique requirements. Some require larger orchestras. Others require actors with certain skills. Something Rotten features lots of dancing and stage coordination, so it was easiest to combine the roles into one.

Guilbeault said the combination of choreography and stage management comes with a lot more responsibility, but it helps limit the amount of communication needed for production. She said it also gives her better creative control.

“I’ve done this a couple of times and I’ve really enjoyed having that opportunity to create fluid movement,” she said. “Unlike the stage director who has a script, and a musical director who has a score, the choreographer has a blank page. I like the creativity of deciding what movement I want on stage and how to best use our cast.”

One of the cast members, Wellington Village resident Paul Davis, is new to Orpheus: after watching many of their shows over the last five years, he joined the backstage production team for their March 2023 show Memphis. For Something Rotten, he’s the standby performer for brother Jeremiah.

Two men sitting in the front sing while sitting in front of music sheets.
Paul Davis (right) is the standby actor for Brother Jeremiah in Something Rotten. Photo by Zenith Wolfe.

Davis said no matter if someone is on stage or backstage, they always feel like they’re part of a team. This atmosphere is especially important given that it takes many volunteers to put on a show, he added.

“There are 38 people in the cast, but there are well over 100 people contributing to the show. It’s a beehive in here,” he said. 

Robertson said a supportive community develops for each Orpheus show over their nine weeks of rehearsals. He said many of the performers and crew, himself included, enjoy spending time at the rehearsal hall even when they have nothing to practice.

“It’s what I call a cooperative game. Rather than, say, playing hockey, where one team has to win and one team has to lose, we’re all on the same team. We’re all working towards a common goal, and that goal is learning how to entertain people,” Robertson said. 

Davis echoed this sentiment: by participating in Something Rotten, he said he’s had the chance to connect more with Adrien Pyke, a performer who is also his wife’s son.

“(Musical theatre) is new to me but he’s very experienced so I’ve learned a lot from him. It’s kind of a whole new world that’s opened up,” Davis said. “Where else can you find a common interest to approach together?”

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