By Tulis McCall
It’s 1595 in London, and life is good – if you are Shakespeare. If you are not, or if you are another writer like Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James) who, with his brother Nigel (John Cariani) is struggling to keep his theatre company afloat – if you are THAT writer then life is not so very good at all. In fact, it pretty much stinks. Especially when Billie Boy steals your stuff. But Will Shakespeare is a Rock Star and whatever he writes is gold, and whatever he wants is granted. Everybody loves Will.
In Something Rotten the writers Kirkpatrick and O’Farrell have done their due historical diligence. Both British and Broadwayan. In the lush opening Welcome to the Renaissance, we learn that the metal du jour was pewter, men trimmed their beards to look like swallow tails, Francis Bacon experimented with freezing chicken NB – this was 30 years after this play takes place, but who’s counting! And then there are the writer, writers, writers! Webster, Johnson, Marlow, Kyd and…wait for it…. William Shakespeare (Christian Borle). Shakespeare is a 16th century rock star with all the narcissistic trappings one can imagine. That pearly smile intended only to show off a beautiful set of teeth, a self referential demeanor that comes all too naturally to him, and a fascination with bright shiny objects. – especially the female sort.
Yes everybody loves Will, especially Will himself, except for Nick Bottom, who hates Will. While rehearsing the Bottom version of Richard II the company’s benefactor Lord Clapham (Peter Bartlett) reveals that Shakespeare is premiering his work of the same name, and withdraws his patronage unless the Bottom Boys (I know) come up with something new. By tomorrow.
Nick knows what is needed, and how much it will cost. He makes off with the money that he and his perky but progressive wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) have been setting aside. This is after a quick scene where Bea begs to be Nick’s Right Hand Man and predicts that women will have equal rights by the year 1600. Sigh. Nick enters into the darker part of London in search of a soothsayer who will predict the theatrical future. Nick finds his man, Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) who looks like he just crawled out of cats sans tale and whiskers. Within minutes he predicts that the theatre of the future will have a roof, cushy seats and wine that is way too expensive. Next up on his visionary plate is a whole new deal: MUSICALS.
NOSTRADAMUS – It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops and the plot is conveyed through song.
NICK – Through song?
NOSTRADAMUS – Yes.
NICK – An actor is saying his lines and then, out of nowhere, he – just starts singing??
NOSTRADAMUS – Yes!
Whereupon Nick launches into song on the spot to protest this monstrous, idiotic idea. Get it??? I must say it was pretty damn funny, and there follows the number that stops the show. A Musical borrows musical phrases from e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g produced in the past 30 years: Rent, Annie, Jesus Christ Superstar – and these folks are just getting started.
Nostradamus tries to see the next hit that Shakepeare will write and misses by a hair. It will Omlette not Hamlet, and he proceeds to load the plot with theatrical trinkets – a Danish, and Ham-something….
Meanwhile, the Kirkpatrick and O’Farrell go off in search of a love interest and come up with the idea of pairing Nigel Bottom with the a Puritan named Portia [yes indeed] (Kate Reinders) who is a ringer for Kristen Chenoweth from crown to toenail, and matches her gesture for gesture, innuendo for innuendo, and of course note for note. In a series of sweet and pun-filled scenes the two lovers commit to one another and defy her father Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmankas) who condemns all non believers with one hand and swishes with the other.
The first act ends with a hopeful production number, Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top.
Enter the second act where everything topples over. Not only does the idea of Omlette The Musical sound impossible – it is. And the accompanying story of how it became that way wanders off the reservation with nary a backward glance. Shakespeare infiltrates the Bottom Company when he hears about the soothsayer. Nigel, in protest against the Omlette, writes his own play that is the beginning of Hamlet. The Bard hangs around long enough to memorize what he needs.. Bea masquerades as a man to save her family. And on, and on, and on. Oh, it is entertaining, which is one reason you don’t notice that nothing much is actually happening. The music is snappy, and the musical jokes (ie How do you solve a problem like Ophelia) never stop coming until the musical within the musical falls on its face. Everyone is brought to court for breach of whatever and banished off to America where they will introduce the first musical to the land of the free.
On the positive side, the production values are superb. Kudos to Scott Pask whose set packs more set changes onto that stage than a person can believe. The costumes by Gregg Barns are spectacular and SOMEONE should buy a round of drinks for the dressers who must fly like the wind back stage. The orchestration, singing and dancing are all of a piece and get your toes tapping big time.
Something Rotten is a big splashy puffball of a musical that has been way over-thought, over written and over-worked. This is the Disney version of the Renaissance with a touch of Rocky Horror, mixed with a soupcon of pure razzle-dazzle. There is not room for one more note, one more reference to a Broadway musical, one more historical factoid, one more nod to Shakespeare, one more word or gesture or even breath. We waddle out of the theatre stuffed, but not satiated.
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
WITH: Brian d’Arcy James (Nick Bottom), John Cariani (Nigel Bottom), Heidi Blickenstaff (Bea), Brad Oscar (Nostradamus), Kate Reinders (Portia), Brooks Ashmanskas (Brother Jeremiah), Peter Bartlett (Lord Clapham/Master of the Justice), Gerry Vichi (Shylock), Michael James Scott (Minstrel) and Christian Borle (Shakespeare).
Sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Gregg Barnes; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Peter Hylenski; hair design by Josh Marquette; makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; technical supervisor, Juniper Street Productions; production stage manager, Charles Underhill; associate director, Steve Bebout; associate choreographer, John MacInnis; associate producer, Lucas McMahon; general manager, Bespoke Theatricals; music direction/vocal arrangements by Phil Reno; arrangements by Glen Kelly; orchestrations by Larry Hochman; music coordinator, John Miller. Presented by Kevin McCollum, Broadway Global Ventures, CMC, Mastro/Goodman, Jerry and Ronald Frankel, Morris Berchard, Kyodo Tokyo Inc., Wendy Federman, Barbara Freitag, Lams Productions, Winkler/DeSimone, Timothy Laczynski, Dan Markley, Harris/Karmazin, Jam Theatricals, Robert Greenblatt and Jujamcyn Theaters. At the St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200, rottenbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.