Over a year after making its straight-to-Broadway world premiere, Something Rotten! is still running strong at the St. James Theatre. Much of its success can be attributed to Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick's undeniably funny score, with an equally hilarious (albeit messy) book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell. Still, the show probably wouldn't have survived this long without director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's razzle-dazzle staging, which features some of the best production numbers currently on Broadway. Now, a stellar replacement cast looks poised to keep Something Rotten! feeling fresh and new.
The title (arguably the most unappetizing on Broadway) is a reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet. The wacky and imaginative story takes place in Elizabethan England, a place where poets are the superstars, complete with crazed fans and tabloid-ready rivalries. Shakespeare (Will Chase) twinkles brighter than them all, to the great consternation of struggling actor-manager Nick Bottom (Rob McClure), who fired Shakespeare from his troupe for being "annoying." Nick's brother, Nigel (Josh Grisetti), is more of a fan, despite (or because of) his own real talent for verse. Facing the extinction of his company when moneylender Shylock (Gerry Vichi) raises his interest rate, Nick resolves to eat Shakespeare's lunch: He goes to soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) to find out what the Bard's greatest hit will be, so he can write it first. It is a profoundly fear-based artistic decision with the potential to leave Nick with egg on his face.
Leading the cast, McClure radiates the energy of a particularly angry little boy, bouncing through all of his choreography. He's like a living cartoon, a style that fits perfectly with the zany tone of this musical. Grisetti (who looks like he could be McClure's actual sibling) is far less aggressive, with a passivity that screams "little brother."
As Nick's saintly wife, Bea, Leslie Kritzer is funny and likable, making a strong first impression with her song "Right-Hand Man." The charming Catherine Brunell plays Nigel's wayward puritan girlfriend, Portia, with just the right combination of innocence and sass. Both women effortlessly wear Josh Marquette's Disney princess-looking wigs as if they were their natural hair.
Chase's Shakespeare is like an Elizabethan Billy Idol, his doublet precariously fastened by just one button. His arrogant charisma is simultaneously repulsive and sexy as he purrs his greatest hits in a manner reminiscent of a vintage Tim Curry. As Portia's bible-thumping father, Brother Jeremiah, the uproarious David Beach subtly comments on the script. Wallowing in the decadence of his diction, he scrunches up his face in recognition of his own Freudian slips: "So help me God, I will smite these Bottoms — and smite them hard." *wince*
Naturally, Tony Award nominee Brad Oscar (the lone principal holdover from the original cast) is still stopping the show with "A Musical," the glitzy premonition of the future of theater that somehow manages to highlight all the most important Broadway shows of the last century. He is backed by a tireless ensemble, each of whom have crafted very specific characters of their own, so that watching the action upstage is often as fun as seeing what's happening downstage.
Kirkpatrick and O'Farrell's book is not the wittiest or most efficient on Broadway: Truly, the second act feels somewhat like a crash landing after a particularly boozy ride in first class. But what the script lacks in style is more than compensated for by a cast ready and able to go the extra mile for a laugh. It's not just Chase: Everyone in this company is a rock star. Their performances absolutely merit a second helping of this completely enjoyable lunacy.