There is a musical number early in Something Rotten that thoroughly delivers what the show’s title, cast, creative team, and poster art have promised — Monty Python subversive silliness; Mel Brooks coarse, extravagant entertainment; Forbidden Broadway parody. A desperate Elizabethan playwright named Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James) wants to triumph over his rival, Shakespeare (Christian Borle), and so visits a soothsayer named Nostradamus.
Not the famous Nostradamus: “I’m his nephew. Thomas.”
Nick asks Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) to look into the future and tell him: “What will the next big thing in theater be?”
Nostradamus answers: Musicals.
What are musicals, Nick asks.
And Nostradamus shows him, in song, and a little tap dance, and a dig at Les Miz, and quick-hit homage to All That Jazz and Evita and Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar. The song-and-dance becomes increasingly elaborate, populated with more and more of the cast, until all two dozen cast members are engaged in full-out synchronized hoofing that climaxes in a Rockettes-style kick line, topped off with an allusion to A Chorus Line. It is fabulous and hilarious. The performers have to wait for the applause and cheers to die down and for the audience members to sit back down. Then Nick turns to Nostradamus: “You really think that’ll work?”
That number, “A Musical,” is the highlight of the show. It would be too harsh to say it goes straight downhill from there, and not completely accurate. After all, there are several examples of the musical that Nick begins putting together under Nostradamus’s guidance that are similarly fun and funny: One number celebrates the Black Death, featuring scythe-carrying dancers in black cloaks, and one scrambles references to well-known “future” musicals and mashes them up with lines from Shakespeare.
But none of the songs are quite as entertaining as “A Musical,” in part because they start to seem too similar to one another. By the end of the show, despite the cleverness of its concept, Something Rotten as executed simply hasn’t added up to a completely satisfying musical. Its choreography seems too repetitive, its rock score sounds too generic, its tone is confused – as often peppy or sappy as subversive or satiric – and its plot is all over the place: Too much of what unfolds during its 150-minute running time feels like filler.
Still, there are a whole host of amusing and inspired touches, the kind you might expect from a show directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who directed and choreographed both The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, and, ten years ago, choreographed Monty Python’s Spamalot. He reportedly has worked over the last four years helping to shape the show with co-book writer John O’Farrell and the two Southern-born brothers, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, who conceived the musical: Wayne is a Nashville songwriter (Eric Clapton’s“Change the World,” Garth Brooks’ “Wrapped Up in You”); Karey is a film director and writer (Chicken Run, James and the Giant Peach); O’Farrell is a British humorist and screenwriter. None had previous experience writing for the stage.
The central characters of Something Rotten are, like its creators, two brothers who aspire to successful careers in the theatre, Nick and Nigel Bottom. Nick has a wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff,) who wants to help out the family finances by getting a job, something Nick vetoes. “This is the nineties!” Bea retorts. “We’ve got a woman on the throne and by the year 1600, women will be completely equal to men. “ She spends most of the rest of the show dressed as a man.
Nigel (John Cariani), a bachelor, falls in love with a beautiful blonde, who is the daughter of a closeted Puritan named Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmankas), who disapproves of the relationship. Kate Reinders portrays Nigel’s star-crossed lover, whose name is Portia. One of the gags threaded through Something Rotten is that many characters have the same name as those in Shakespeare’s plays – the implication being that the Bard stole their identities. Nick, for example, owes money to a Jewish moneylender.
“If you give me another week,” Nick tells him, “I’ll name a character after you.”
“Too late: Shakespeare already promised that,” says Shylock. Shylock (Jerry Vichi) doesn’t want to be a money lender; that’s the only job the law allows a Jew. What he really loves is the theatre – and he becomes the first-ever producer of the first-ever musical.
You can’t have a play about Shakespearean times, I suppose, without featuring a character named William Shakespeare. Christian Borle, Tony winner as the pirate in Peter and the Starcatcher and a veteran both of Broadway’s Spamalot and TV’s Smash, here plays the Bard as the Elvis of the Elizabethan Age, swaggering like Conrad Birdie in Bye, Bye Birdie, and at one point ripping open his leather jacket to reveal his bare chest. It’s a part that Borle was born to play.
But he also disguises himself in order to infiltrate Nick and Nigel’s troupe, spy on them, and steal Nigel’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech…. one subplot too many for me.
Something Rotten is stuffed full of joking references to modern musicals and knowing nods to the work of the Bard (“Why is he THE Bard?” Nick complains at one point. “I’m a bard, you’re a bard. He’s just one of the bards.”) But there are also many gay and Jewish jokes, mixed in with cracks about Nazis, scatological humor and juvenilia: When Nick expresses his strong antipathy in the song “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” his troupe replies in unison: “Don’t be a penis/the man is a genius.” There is no mistaking the echoes here of Monty Python and especially Mel Brooks, two established masters of Broadway-specific vulgarity. If they seem too calculated in their demographic appeal for two brothers from Louisiana, let me paraphrase the Bard: There is nothing either good or bad, but laughing makes it so.
Something Rotten is on stage at the St. James Theatre, 246 W 44th St. (between 7th and 8th Aves), New York, NY 10036
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