Did you know that Musicals were predicted to be the next great thing in theater in the 1590s by Thomas Nostradamus, nephew of that famous seer who prophesied various fires, plagues, and Hitler? And that a woman’s right to work was an issue in those same 1590s (which, unfortunately, could also be said of the 1950s, 1960s, etcetera), and that women expected to have equal rights as men by 1600? Neither did I, but according to Something Rotten!, the Tony-nominated musical comedy playing at Shea’s Performing Arts Center through Sunday, all this and more were part and parcel of the Renaissance revival after the stultifying, boring Middle Ages.
In the middle of it all was Rockstar playwright and poet William Shakespeare, that Sultan of Sonnets, The Bard himself, who was the darling of the Queen’s court and London theater, and according to some, a filthy plagiarist. Ah, but there were others toiling day and night, struggling to have their plays produced in the face of the Shakespeare juggernaut. None were more intent on being rich and famous than the determined and driven Nick Bottom, whose ship ran aground when he found out his plan to produce a play about Richard II was already being done by his nemesis, the hated Shakespeare. What to do, what to do? Along with his sensitive, nerdy writer brother, Nigel, who actually admires The Bard, he must find a way to outdo Will. In desperation, he goes to see the soothsayer.
That is the setup for this fast-paced, silly, zany sendup of musicals, theatrical rivalries, psychics, adoring fans, and whatever else brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who conceived the musical, could toss into the mix. It is replete with double-entendres, wordplay, and parody, along with the largest codpieces in men-in-tights history, Mel Brooks notwithstanding.
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who did the original Broadway production, Something Rotten! is well acted by the excellent cast led by Rob McClure as the bedeviled Nick and Adam Pascal as the narcissistic Shakespeare. Josh Grisetti as Nigel brings a sweetness and sensitivity to his role as the brilliant and humble writer of such phrases as “this above all, to thine own self be true.” Sound familiar? Blake Hammond is terrific as Thomas Nostradamus as he envisions the future of musicals--something with singing cats all over the stage? Really? But he also seriously warns Nick that he is facing a fall if he continues on the path he is choosing. Scott Cote is the Puritan Brother Jeremiah, who cannot seem to utter a sentence without a sexual inference. Jeff Brooks plays the frustrated and comic Shylock. The two women, who of course are love interests, are the fierce feminist Bea, and the ingenue Portia, played by Maggie Laks and Autumn Hurlburt respectively.
Act One is the strongest and funniest of this Two Act extravaganza. The number “A Musical,” wherein Nostradamus fleshes out his prediction that singing and dancing on stage is the coming thing, is a riot of tap dancing, Vegas-style and yet still Renaissance costumes, flashing lights, and Rockette leg kicks. And why not have a musical number about the Black Death? “Will Power” is laden with rock concert clichés, from swooning girls to waving candles. It could be Mick or Bruce up there in front of the screaming fans, but it’s our Will in a silver doublet and one of those giant codpieces singing and rapping to his adoring public.
The second act lags a bit, as Nick tries to find his way and Nigel pursues his sweetheart, Portia. The musical doesn’t work as well when it tries to be serious or make a statement, as in Nick’s dark night of the soul, and the court scene. However, “We See the Light” with Brother Jeremiah tossing off his Puritan costume (if only), is a rousing gospel number, and “Make An Omelette” is ridiculously and hilariously over-the-top with its dancing eggs and references to almost every famous musical of the past 50 years.
If it sometimes seems as if Something Rotten! is trying too hard, has a few too many repeated jokes and ploughs the same field too often, as it were, it is also very, very funny, and goofy, and madcap, and a delight to watch. From the Renaissance costumes, the Tudor sets, the energetic and lively dancing, to the fine acting, clever book and lyrics, to the obvious pleasure of the audience, it is a delightful night of theater.