Broadway Review: ‘Something Rotten’

Something Rotten review Broadway musical
Joan Marcus

More than reviews or word of mouth or the cheeky ads and poster art, what’s really going to sell “Something Rotten!” is “A Musical,” the production number from the first act that (educated guess) they’ll be performing on the Tony Awards telecast. This shamelessly silly parody of Broadway musicals — and outrageous spoof of all things Shakespeare — was hatched from the fevered brains of brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, aided by comic novelist John O’Farrell and abetted by director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”). Although comic desperation descends on the second act, it’s still a deliriously funny show.

The year is 1595 and the English Renaissance is in full flower in Tudor London. In a clever opening number, we’re introduced to some of the marvels of this wondrous age. Cue Francis Bacon, clutching a chicken to let us know that he’s found a way to freeze meat. And here comes Sir Walter Raleigh, aristocratic nose in the air and puffing on a pipe filled with tobacco, the marvelous substance he brought back from his travels to the new world. And don’t even get these cheerleaders started on all the brilliant playwrights of the age, like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Dekker and John Middleton.

But that cock-of-the-walk Will Shakespeare (Christian Borle, who has us in raptures with his romantically flowing locks and overstuffed codpiece) is such a conceited rock star that no other playwright has a chance — not even Thomas Kyd, whose plays Shakespeare brazenly ransacks for plots. Certainly not brothers and writing partners Nick (Brian d’Arcy James, a charming rogue) and Nigel Bottom (John Cariani, an endearing innocent), whose theater troupe will lose their rich patron if the brothers can’t come up with an idea for a play that Shakespeare hasn’t done already.

“Oh, God, I hate Shakespeare!” rails Nick, in d’Arcy James’ plummy tones of envious contempt. “His plays are wordy,” his musical rant goes on. “He has no sense about the audience, he makes them feel so dumb.” To which Shakespeare’s groupies reply, “Don’t be a penis. The man is a genius.”

That synthesis of highbrow/lowbrow humor is what makes the show so irresistible. The cockeyed creative style works brilliantly in that showstopper, “A Musical,” which simultaneously celebrates and sends up everything we hold dear about this peculiar art form, from the “jazzy hands” of Bob Fosse to the synchronized line dancing of the Rockettes.

The brothers give it their best shot, but for some reason, their musical about the Black Death (“that pesty little pestilence is killing half of Europe / It’s the Black Death — mmm-mmm-woo-woo — and it’s coming for you-oo”) doesn’t please their patron, Lord Clapham (Peter Bartlett, an amusing blusterer). And the pressure is on.

Desperate to avoid going in hock to Shylock (Gerry Vichi, a real cutie), Nick raids the nest egg accumulated by his wife, Bea (feisty Heidi Blickenstaff), and gives it to the soothsayer Nostradamus (an inspired comic performance from Brad Oscar) for a glimpse into the future.

Nick is paying for the plot of Shakespeare’s as-yet-unwritten most famous play, although this strutting peacock (“I am the Will with the skill / To thrill you with the quill”) doesn’t seem mature enough to write something truly earth-shaking. But Nostradamus assures Nick that one day Will will dazzle the whole world with his immortal work — a musical called “Omelet.” (Gregg Barnes has designed witty takeoffs on period-appropriate costuming for every number in the show, but his bizarre creations for “Omelet,” in particular, must be seen and savored.)

“I see within these fluffy folds / The scrambled nature of my soul,” sings Nick, leading a troupe of actors who run rampant through the Shakespearean canon and seem to be having as much fun as we are.

And that’s all the plot you need to know, because there’s entirely too much of it in the messy second act. But by that time, the show is steaming ahead, fueled by the bold-as-brass music, the ingenious lyrics and the sheer lunacy of the whole enterprise.

something-rotten-review-broadway-musical

Broadway Review: 'Something Rotten'

St. James Theater; 1667 seats; $142 top. Opened April 22, 2015. Reviewed April 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production

A Kevin McCollum, Broadway Global Ventures, CMC, Mastro/Goodman, Jerry & Ronald Frankel, Morris Berchard, Kyodo Tokyo, Wendy Federman, Barbara Freitag, Lams Prods., Winkler/DeSimone, Timothy Laczynski, Dan Markley, Harris/Karmazin, Jam Theatricals, Robert Greenblatt,and Jujamcyn Theaters presentation of a musical in two acts conceived by Karey Kirkpatrick & Wayne Kirkpatrick, with book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O'Farrell, and music & lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick & Karey Kirkpatrick.

Creative

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Peter Hylenski; hair, Josh Marquette; makeup, Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; music direction & vocal arrangements, arrangements, Glen Kelly; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; production stage manager, Charles Underhill.

Cast

Brian d'Arcy James, John Cariani, Heidi Blickenstaff, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Bartlett, Gerry Vichi, Michael James Scott.

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  1. Cheryl Beyer says:

    Absolutely a creative, fun, memorable musical. Smiles all the way through and afterwards you are singing the songs and saying the lines.

  2. sally ellison says:

    Terrible. If you want sophomoric “jokes”, boring plot and dull music where the rhyme for genius is penis—so original and well thought out……..this is your play.

  3. Ed Hernandez says:

    I was in town this past weekend, and this was my first Broadway show ever. WOW! If I could afford to see it multiple times, there would be something new to laugh at each time. This show was not only hysterical, but hit a personal note for me: back in high school, we talked our way out of a bland Shakespeare writing assignment by instead, making a film called Omelette, a parody of Hamlet. I would love to get the gang back together 30 years later to see this musical.

  4. vickiborn says:

    We saw this in previews and liked it a lot BETTER than Mormon. GREAT show, and the Tonys better open with that number!

  5. Bill B. says:

    I wish I still lived in NYC. This sounds pretty awesome.

  6. The review only hints at the comic absurdity that is put on the stage every night by Something Rotten! There’s no way to describe its jokes in words because they are so based on musical theatre and Shakespeare knowledge. Really a hoot and a deserving contender for the Best Musical Tony.

  7. Tom says:

    Sorry, it just seems to me that Shakespeare is an undeserving target.

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