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.