Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through July 23
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Something Rotten!” is something of a one-trick pony, but the premise is so delicious, and the Broadway tour now at the Oriental Theatre is so ebullient, it’s impossible to resist. Creative anachronism is the gimmick, and with music and lyrics by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and a book by Karey and British humorist John O’Farrell, the show skewers Shakespeare and the whole genre of musicals while reveling in a giddy love affair with both.
Not surprisingly, two brothers are at the center of the story, which starts with “Welcome to the Renaissance,” a rousing ensemble song and dance number brushing off the Middle Ages and inviting us to a time, the 1590s, and place, London, where everything is new. Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) runs a small acting company with the help of his more poetic sibling, Nigel (Josh Grisetti)–all the members are named after Bottom’s men in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”– and he’s in trouble. His latest play, which is about Richard II, has been nixed because super-star playwright Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), whose “Romeo and Juliet” is getting raves, beat him to the punch, and he’s about to lose his patron, Lord Clapham (Joel Newsome), unless he can come up with a bright new idea right away. Not only that, a Puritan, Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote), is on a campaign to shut down all the theaters; Nick and his adamantly liberated wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) are so broke she collects old cabbages thrown at criminals, and she soon informs him she’s pregnant.
So what’s a fellow to do? After venting in the very funny “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” Nick decides to consult a soothsayer to find out what the next big thing in theater will be. Nostradamus—Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), that is—peers into the future, and the result is “A Musical,” a fabulous show stopper that not only parodies every musical you’ve heard of (from “Cats” to “A Chorus Line”) and some you haven’t, it also sends up common musical conventions: characters spontaneously bursting into song, a stage full of tappers, the kick line, the fan dance, the reprise, and more.
Looking for a major subject to match this innovative form, Nick hits on “The Black Death”–shades of “The Producers” here—but that idea turns off his patron for good, though the sample we see is most amusing. However, Shylock (Jeff Brooks) has been bugging him to become an investor and Nick finally gives in, even though it’s illegal for Jews to be producers. He also returns to Nostradamus to suss out what Shakespeare’s greatest play is going to be, so he can steal it and stage it before the Bard.
Unfortunately, the soothsayer’s visions are very fuzzy, and while Nick becomes totally committed to “Omelette—The Musical,” Nigel feels that something is wrong. He’s also fallen in love with Brother Jeremiah’s daughter, Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), and she with him, over their shared love of poetry and Shakespeare (which Nigel has tried to keep secret from his brother). This inspires him to write his own version of a play—not about a prince who eats eggs and Danish but about one who is Danish—but Nick will not listen to his plea in “To Thine Own Self,” and the brothers have a huge fight.
Predictable plot complications ensue, including Portia being sent to a nunnery by her angry father and Shakespeare infiltrating Nick’s troupe in disguise to discover what’s up, then trying to steal Nigel’s play because he recognizes his talent. The second act isn’t as strong as the first, but the song selections from “Omelette—The Musical” are hilarious, thanks to a mash-up of tidbits from “Hamlet” and other Shakespeare plays, as well as the sight of tap-dancing eggs, both raw and cooked. A courtroom scene riffs on “The Merchant of Venice” with a difference, and the denouement brings us back to the beginning but in a newer new world that reworks the origins of American musical theater, as the brothers come up with the show Nigel originally wanted—their own story.
Casey Nickolaw directs with a sure, if slightly manic, hand, and the entire cast is strong, but two very different performances stand out. Pascal brilliantly channels several bleach-blond pop idols as the preening Shakespeare—in Gregg Barnes’ inspired glam-rock costumes—and his Shakespeare in the Park “Will Power” number with four hunky backup boys in black leather could rival a nineties (1990s, that is) concert, while his “Hard to Be the Bard” is just plain fun. Grisetti’s Nigel combines an endearing goofiness with an inherent sweetness, making him the brother we root for. He also has a lovely voice that shines through in songs like his duet with Portia.
On the down side, I found the singing of the two lead women rather shrill, and the small orchestra, heavy on keyboards and percussion, wasn’t always in sync with the cast on opening right. Nickolaw’s choreography is clichéd, but that’s undoubtedly deliberate, since this is a spoof. Scott Pask’s scenic design could be for pop-up books about Tudor England but conjures idealized villages more than bustling London.
I admit I was a bit skeptical about “Something Rotten!,” but sometimes a silly evening with a lot of singing and dancing is just the ticket. And a few gags were so funny, I laughed till I cried.