Let me just say that any show the rhymes “genius” with “penis” is okay by me, and Something Rotten! is that show. It is an original musical by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell with music by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick. The Kirkpatricks have no Broadway or regional theatre credits at all, but they are obviously musical theatre fans as I lost count of how many musicals are referenced as punchlines throughout the show.
The show is about brothers Nick (Brian d’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani) Bottom, writers living in the shadow of the ever-popular William Shakespeare (Christian Borle). Frustrated over their lack of success and facing financial pressure, Nick visits a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), in an effort to find out what Shakespeare’s next show will be about so he can steal the idea for himself. Unfortunately, Thomas is a bit dotty and confused, telling Nick that Shakespeare’s next show is called Omelette! rather than the correct Hamlet. Thomas also tells them that musicals will be all the rage in the future, proceeding to mix up characters and plot points from major Broadway musicals of the past that Nick and Nigel use in the creation of their show.
Though the conceit of mixing up plots and characters from other properties and creating something new from them as part of a deception seems like it is right out of The Book of Mormon (I doubt Something Rotten! would exist if that other hit show had not made such an impact), it was hard not to succumb. The catchy music, fun lyrics, and the force by which everyone performs (the actors sell the show as if they are still trying to find investors) is the working definition of “musical comedy,” even if things tend to fall apart in the rather short second act a bit.
“Welcome to the Renaissance,” the tuneful and humorous number that opens both acts, brings to mind “Good Morning, Baltimore” from Hairspray while still sounding quite different and functioning on its own; “Right Hand Man” is a stand out song as performed by Heidi Blickenstaff as Nick’s wife, Bea, one that is so good that it proves to be disappointing as it promises a sizable part for Bea in the story that is not delivered; Brad Oscar’s “A Musical” is performed with glee and wonder, making him my pick for Best Featured Actor of the season in a musical. Chords from Annie, Rent, and Gypsy as well as so many other musicals pop up now and then but never outstay their welcome. “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top” as sung by Nick and the company has a not-too-subtle reference to the top/bottom sexual roles with gay men, and there are more gay jokes and references than necessary on display throughout the show. It struck me as a bit of overkill as gay men are probably the biggest audience for this kind of show and yet effort is made time and again to make them the easy target of a punchline, quite a few at the expense of Brother Jeremiah (played with pinky up by Brooks Ashmanskas), a fey religious zealot in Pilgrim garb determined to keep his daughter Portia (a sweet and giggly Kate Reinders) away from the theatre and from Nigel Bottom. Was I offended? No, but I did roll my eyes more than once as some of the cheap jokes took me right out of the show.
Poor Christian Borle gets saddled with the worst songs in the show as Shakespeare. Still, even though he ostensibly plays the villain in the piece, his natural likability shines through and he is a great foil for d’Arcy James. Of particular note are three actors in small roles: Michael James Scott as the minstrel and member of the ensemble who energetically opens both acts; Gerry Vichi as Shylock, a nebbish Jewish actor; and Peter Bartlett as Lord Clapham, a foppish theatre financier. It’s heartening to see such talented actors take such very small roles and milk them for everything that they’re worth.
The audience and I had a great time at Something Rotten! with a few caveats. I guess it was only a matter of time before the post-modern self-referential movement popular in horror films such as Scream would wind up on Broadway. The show moves very well with deft direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw as dances erupt with boundless energy and the various set pieces are rearranged discretely, mostly by the actors, bucking the modern trend of being overly mechanized.
Oddly enough, I’m not a fan of the key art used to promote the show as it appears too busy to me, much like the advertising for The Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder is also lacking in my mind. I hope it doesn’t keep people from seeing this fun show.