Broadway newbies offer a tuneful myth about the Shakespearean origins of musical theater.
"Perhaps we shouldn't have canceled the out-of-town tryout," reads a recent advertisement for Something Rotten!, the new musical lampoon of Elizabethan drama now playing Broadway's St. James Theatre. Much has been made of the producers' brash decision to cancel the show's Seattle engagement in favor of a world premiere on Broadway. The last musical comedy to do that, Bullets Over Broadway, closed after a disappointing 156 performances (also at the St. James and featuring comedian Brooks Ashmanskas). That ominous history considered, perhaps they shouldn't have rushed in. Still, Something Rotten! makes for a decidedly better night at the theater than many other shows that have benefited from a test run.
This is even more surprising considering Something Rotten! is the invention of Broadway novices (and brothers) Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, with additional book material by John O'Farrell. Of course, they have a seasoned captain in director Casey Nicholaw, who steered The Book of Mormon (which also opened cold on Broadway and was written by newcomers Matt Stone and Trey Parker) to a shiny new Tony and something even more precious: box office gold. Something Rotten! doesn't quite reach the game-changing heights of that blockbuster musical, but it will give you two and a half hours of hearty laughs.
The fanciful story is set in London circa 1595. "Welcome to the Renaissance," a wandering minstrel (Michael James Scott) sings as the curtain rises. This zippy opening number (which evokes a swinging London still several centuries away) introduces us to a world of poets and puritans. The unquestioned rock star of the age is William Shakespeare (Christian Borle, with just the right mixture of smugness and self-doubt). Meanwhile, thespian brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (Brian d'Arcy James and John Cariani) struggle at the bottom of the theatrical heap, wishing for something half as good as Shakespeare.
Nick outwardly professes his hatred for Shakespeare and even sings a delightfully baroque rock number titled "God, I Hate Shakespeare." Of course, the playwright doth protest too much. He secretly loves Shakespeare's work so much that he visits a grizzled soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (the unstoppably absurd Brad Oscar) to inquire about Shakespeare's embryonic greatest hit so he can steal the idea for himself. While Nostradamus has a direct line to the future, his wires tend to get crossed and he gives Nick the title of what he thinks will be the Bard's masterpiece: Omelette.
"I'm just thinking about the audience. You know, the people who've come in from Jersey," says Shylock (a very funny Gerry Vichi), the Jewish moneylender who joins Omelette as a producer. Of course, he's talking about the island in the English Channel. "These are salt-of-the-earth people; they've worked hard all week; they don't want metaphors. They want good-old-fashioned frivolous entertainment." The creative team seems to have taken this advice to heart, packing the show with jokes and glitzy tap numbers. There's one undeniable showstopper in the first act and that is "A Musical." Delivered by Nostradamus, the song encapsulates the entire book-musical form in six hilarious minutes. It's so chock-full of witty references and energetic dance; it's hard to see how it could be topped.
In truth, it never quite is, but the fact that the show is able to maintain its high level of lunacy without falling into a disappointing rut in the second act is a testament to Nicholaw, his cast, and his creative team.
There's not a bad performance here. James has an undeniable ability to interpret a song's lyrics, delivering them in a manner that is at once natural and unexpected. As Nick's wife, Bea, Heidi Blickenstaff matches him. She's never been in better voice. The cartoonish Cariani fits perfectly into the role of talented weirdo Nigel; his star-crossed romance with young puritan Portia (the adorable Kate Reinders) is quite touching. As Portia's tightly wound father, Brother Jeremiah, Brooks Ashmanskas practically steals the show with his suggestive line-readings and expressions of barely concealed lust.
Gregg Barnes' tricky and transformative costumes lend some bling to the mise-en-scène. Borle gets some of the best outfits with spiky Elizabethan collars and exaggerated codpieces. With auburn curls and a peasant dress, Blickenstaff looks like a Disney princess, especially set against Scott Pask's storybook scenery, which seems to unfold like a pop-up book.
The end result is an irreverent fairy tale of the Atlantic divide in our theater, in which musical blockbusters all seem to come from Broadway and serious dramas originate in the West End. Those looking for an antidote to the Tudor-era seriousness of Wolf Hall will find Something Rotten! seriously delightful.