Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 22, 2015
Something Rotten! Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell. Music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. Conceived by Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. Cast: Brian d'Arcy James, John Cariani, Heidi Blickenstaff, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Bartlett, Gerry Vichi, Michael James Scott, Elizabeth Earley, Eric Giancola, Linda Griffin, David Hibbard, Jenny Hill, Stacey Todd Holt, Courtney Iventosch, Aaron Kaburick, Austin Lesch, Beth Johnson Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Eric Sciotto, Brian Shepard, Chelsea Morgan Stock, Angie chworer, Ryan Vandenboom, Matt Wall, Marisha Wallace, Bud Weber, and Christian Borle.
So if you've been uncertain about Something Rotten!, which just opened at the St. James, your apprehension is understandable. It's made little secret that it's the latest installment in an ongoing series, and thus probably not worth purists' time. After all, it's yet another two and a half hours making fun of the thing you like and, by extension, making fun of you for liking it, right?
Unlike Urinetown and Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone and on and on and on, this new effort by Karey Kirkpatrick (book, music, and lyrics), Wayne Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics), and John O'Farrell (book), subverts the subform by rooting its silliness in context andgaspplot. And, by doing so, totally changes the game. You may not be entirely swayed, but I've never seen another musical like this that was more worth giving a chance (and I've seen just about all of them). If nothing else, you don't have to worry about it insulting you. Which isn't to say you should think about it too hard.
Be that as it may, the Bottom Brothers and their troupe have to eat, and Nick wants to feed his wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff), even though she'd prefer to be out in the workforce herself. So Nick takes his family's small stash of coins to Soothsayer Alley, planning to pay a prognosticator to tell him the next big thing in the theatre. The man he finds, Nostradamusno, not that one; this is his nephew, Thomas (Brad Oscar)predicts that it will be, you guessed it, musicals. Then, of course, in the show's biggest and best number (titled, appropriately, "A Musical"), proceeds to rope in Nick (and, naturally, the rest of the cast), to celebrate this new art long before any of them understands it.
The references fly fast and thick as Nostradamus keeps prophesying new snippets and snatches of scenes and songs, and reinterpreting them through his own 16th-century viewpoint and fizzily foreign dance steps. And this is what sets Something Rotten! apart: Its characters aren't knowingly mocking anything; they're trying to comprehend the incomprehensible based on the little information they have, and another 300 years of experience they don't. So the paeans they blare to Gershwin and Willson and Fosse and Styne and Larson and any of a few dozen others may be idiotic, but they're honest. And when Nick returns to Thomas later to learn how to co-opt Shakespeare's future biggest hit, discovers it's called Omelette, and then applies all his newfound knowledge into crafting a musical spectacular that will forever banish The Bard to the ash heap of history... Well, you can get an idea of where things go from there.
It's not genius by a long shot and I'm not sure that, looked at from a few steps back, it's even especially slick storytelling within its own boundaries. This London is a pretty daffy place to begin with, not rooted in its own period at all ("I haven't understood a single word in our last three plays," whines one of Nick's actors in flawless, contemporary American English), name-checking spoilers, depicting Shakespeare (Christian Borle) as a literal rock star who gives park readings before mosh pits, and casting local moneylender Shylock (Gerry Vichi) as modern-day, Yiddish-spouting kvetcher.
It is, however, pretty good. And though the lyrics can be iffy (it's not wise to wax rhapsodic about perfect rhymes in one song when in the others they're critically endangered), the writers know and smartly work within their concept. Anachronistic or not, a majority of the jokes land. And the score, despite a handful of duds ("God, I Hate Shakespeare" is as monotonous as its title, and "Bottom's Gonna Be on Top" is a glitteringly underwhelming first-act finale, and Shakespeare's two numbers are mighty drab), more than sustains the evening. "Welcome to the Renaissance" ("Where we ooh and ahh you with ambiance") and Bea's "Right Hand Man" are quite catchy, Portia and Nigel's duets are sweet and melodic, the numbers we see create for Nick's various musical-writing attempts (first "The Black Death," with its tap-dancing Grim Reapers, and later "It's Eggs!" and "Make an Omelette") have no shortage of cleverness, and everything else is a notch or two above average.
Something Rotten!'s good-naturedness is among its best features, and Casey Nicholaw handles it well in his direction and choreography, which peg zany while somehow staying just under over-the-top. Scott Pask's classic-looking, drop-heavy sets are surprisingly effective and varied, old-fashioned and newfangled all at once. Gregg Barnes's costumes are inventively everyday, and restrained in their outlandishness when they must be (his chorus line of high-kicking eggs is a particular hoot), and Jeff Croiter lights everything well. Sound designer Peter Hylenski could dial back the volume a little, but you'll have no trouble hearing how good Phil Reno's 18-piece orchestra sounds.
D'Arcy James's darkly irritable mien, but underlying gregariousness, are a fine fit for Nick, and his straight-man attack on all the wild things he encounters is highly satisfying. He gets well-measured support from Cariani, who projects an affable innocence and the searching soul the character needs; Blickenstaff, who's brighter than ever as the well-meaning, forward-thinking Bea; and Oscar, who's outstanding as Thomas. Meanwhile, Ashmanskas and Peter Bartlett, as both a theatrical patron and later a judge, get top hilarity from their smaller roles by pushing their usual shtick to the absolute limit, but not beyond it. As Shakespeare, Borle piles on perhaps too much edge; the character is written to capitalize on making his name by, ahem, borrowing others' work, and most of the time Borle makes him seem like a jerk (and not always a funny one).
The writers obviously enjoy tweaking himthe character names that may be familiar to you from some of his works are, as you'll discover, not an accident, and have plenty of their own comedic payoffs. But if you're a Shakespeare fan, you won't mind, and Shakespeare's reputation will survive. If we're being honest, he takes a heavy drubbing and the musical theatre gets off with a pat on the head. Something Rotten! may not be fantastic, but it proves that a real musical for musical lovers is one that tells a story in a vibrant theatrical wayin other words, exactly what makes most people love musicals in the first place.