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Broadway Reviews

Something Rotten!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 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.
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Edward Hibbert, Josh Grisetti, and Rob McClure
Photo by Joan Marcus

With The Producers more than a decade ago, Broadway's biggest head honchos learned the hard way about the dangers of putting on a musical with genuine star-casting requirements in an environment that too often deters stellar formation. Several men followed Nathan Lane in titanic lead role of Max Bialystock, including the ill-fated Henry Goodman (first) and the up-to-the-challenge Brad Oscar (second), but no one was able to fully take over in a part that had an ironclad association with one gifted performer. And there's been not-so-secret chatter on The Street in the years since that this is, in no small part, why newfangled vehicles are no longer the bread and butter of Broadway they once were.

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 turns—and 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.

Rob McClure and Leslie Kritzer
Photo by Joan Marcus

As Nick, the actor-manager who longs to find a way (for himself and his troupe) out of Shakespeare's towering shadow, Rob McClure is deliciously antic. But although his Nick may register as a thousandfold magnification of the "type" of overburdened Everyman he's already essayed (generally quite well) in Chaplin, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Noises Off, he's also utterly recognizable for his anonymity: just like one of any of the faceless, harried thousands you may see wander the streets of New York.

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 character—a search for lasting relevance—that was barely hinted at before. Bereft of darkness or guile, Nick becomes a victim who truly deserves to succeed—and 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 can—and should—see 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 sense—because 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.

Brad Oscar and Rob McClure
Photo by Joan Marcus

It must be mentioned, though, that Something Rotten! is still about as far from great art as Omelette is from Hamlet. There are long stretches of tedium in both acts that Casey Nicholaw, who provided the direction and happy-go-lucky choreography, is not successful at combating. The peppy physical production (storybook sets by Scott Pask, crazy costumes by Gregg Barnes, splashy lights by Jeff Croiter) can't compensate for the writing, which is too often inartful and cliché-pocked. And, perhaps intentionally, no song before or after is able to top the giddily glitzy "A Musical" in the middle of the first act.

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.

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