Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - Septermber 2, 2016
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: Rob McClure, Josh Grisetti, Leslie Kritzer, Brad Oscar, Catherine Brunell, David Beach, Edward Hibbert, Gerry Vichi, André Ward, Matt Allen, Callie Carter, Max Clayton, Elizabeth Earley, Eric Giancola, David Hibbard, Jenny Hill, Leah Hofmann, Stacey Todd Holt, Aaron Kaburick, Tari Kelly, Beth Johnson Nicely, Brian Ogilvie, Aleks Pevec, Hayley Podschun, Eric Sciotto, Brian Shepard, Ryan VanDenBoom, Matt Wall, Marisha Wallace, and Will Chase.
This is all of shocking relevance these days at the St. James (not coincidentally, the home of The Producers, which became the theater's longest-running tenant since Hello, Dolly! closed almost four decades earlier), where Something Rotten!, which upon first viewing last year seemed designed with this idea in mind, has done the unthinkable: It's replaced its "working actor" leads with performers who are giving bona fide star turnsand transforming what was once an enjoyable, if forgettable romp, into something notably more electric.
Don't get me wrong: There wasn't much wrong with the original group. They did as much as they could with this daffy, dopey romp about the founding of modern musical theatre in (so help me) Jacobean London as anyone could be expected to. Writers Karey Kirkpatrick (book, music, and lyrics), Wayne Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics), and John O'Farrell (book) just wanted to deliver a no-frills good time spinning an absurd tale about brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom acting on bad advice from a soothsayer and crafting a musical, titled Omelette, based on the future masterwork of then-household-name and idea thief extraordinaire William Shakespeare. And that's exactly what Brian d'Arcy James, John Cariani, Heidi Blickenstaff, and their cohorts did.
Their replacements, however, have taken the next two giant but necessary leaps: given in to the inanity of it all and made it relatable to us, things that fix the essential stylistic problems that once felt intrinsic to the material. Whereas the previous cast worked overtime to justify the craziness around them, the new one doesn't even try. And that makes a huge difference.
Combined with his natural sad-sack-next-door charm, which has never been richer or more vibrantly plied than here, this renders Nick absolutely delightful, even lovable in a way that grants a new arc to the central charactera search for lasting relevancethat was barely hinted at before. Bereft of darkness or guile, Nick becomes a victim who truly deserves to succeedand that gives him much more room to go, especially opposite his wife, Bea (Leslie Kritzer), who wants to pick up his money-earning slack.
Nigel is bookish but with a poet and romantic's heart, and Josh Grisetti plays him as such an effortlessly honest nerd that watching him bloom in the face of true love with the Puritan Portia (Catherine Brunell) becomes clearer as a counterpart to Nigel's brother's story. Both are struggling to rewrite the theatre of their lives against their innate shortcomings, and can only find what they really need in each other. This has technically always been in the script, but the loving, unadorned details McClure and Grisetti present, plus the glorious comic chemistry they share, brings it more joyously to the fore.
The final piece of the puzzle comes from Kritzer, who's understated (for her, anyway), to strong effect. Rather than going broad for the various jokes that link Bea to 1960s-style women's liberation some 365 years before its time, she depicts each act as its own necessary step in the woman's own personal and professional evolution. She delays the biggest laughs (and her biggest line readings) until the penultimate scene, when you canand shouldsee just how much she progressed toward expertly wielding consummate power in her world and relationship.
The cumulative effect of all this is similar to that of the inaugural Broadway production of Into the Woods: a sophisticated joke of today's people thrust into the improbable (or impossible) situations of yesteryear. Through this lens, the zaniness of the 1595 England we see, which blends too-familiar concerns about spoilers with sonnet mosh pits and even (huh?) challenge tapping, makes more sensebecause it's not really 1595, or even supposed to be. It's, instead, a reflection of the way we view the world and our own limited contributions to it, as refracted through three people who somehow overcome their ineffectuality.
This is a recipe for a more fulfilling and cohesive evening, despite not everything new being up to the top trio's standards. Gerry Vichi remains a hoot as the Yiddish-spouting moneylender Shylock, but André Ward is a bit stiff as the Minstrel who sings the (surprisingly fine) opening number "Welcome to the Renaissance"; and David Beach's head Puritan and Edward Hibbert's mincing aristocrat are pretty pallid. And though one suspects Will Chase, who's loaded with the appropriate rock-god bravado, might have been a spectacular Shakespeare had he created the part, he does not fit easily into the comedic scenes that were developed with the unique energy of Christian Borle (who won a Tony for his portrayal) in mind.
That's when Nick and the soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus peek a few centuries down the line to discover the next big thing, and become wrapped up in the tunes, steps, and general infectiousness of the Great American Art Form. And though McClure sparkles here, as his character is enraptured by the inexplicable confluence of words and music, it's the Thomas, who is receiving all this revelation head-on, and channeling it through his feet, his hands, and apparently his very hair, that steals the scene.
It is, as it was at opening, Oscar, utilizing every stitch of explosive restraint, slam-bang unpredictability, and, most important, charisma he perfected during The Producers so long ago. There's not much to Thomas during or subsequent to his big number, but Oscar maximizes his every moment onstage to ensure that you never forget what a star can do and why the right one is so important. That's a big deal in 2016. But what might be even more amazing is how thoroughly and winningly McClure, Grisetti, and Kritzer reinforce that message and turn a pedestrian entertainment into one that, however fleetingly, means a great deal more than it previously led you to believe.