Report From New York: Something Rotten Is Far From It

sr1lgWe’re back from our trip to New York to scout out productions you might want to see (or not), shows that might tour South Florida and scripts that might be worth reviving in our regional theaters. We will run our reviews intermittently over the next two weeks. All but one these shows have been nominated for Tony Awards to be given out June 7. At the bottom of the reviews, we will also link to the reviews we published in January of shows that have been nominated as well.

By Bill Hirschman

From Elizabethan actors lining up ala A Chorus Line with oil paintings for their headshots, to a preening rock star Shakespeare spouting his greatest hits to a sycophantic crowd, Something Rotten is a non-stop unabashed hoot of silly, sophomoric, sometimes simply stupid feast of unalloyed hilarity.

This meme-infested mashup of musical comedy and the Bard is like Animal House for theater fans and those who can get through the first round of Shakespeare 101 on Jeopardy (which are most of our readers).

The plot presumes that the impoverished Bottom Brothers (a series of jokes right there) Nick and Nigel are slaving to write a hit play, always stymied and outshone by the impossibly popular Shakespeare. Their work in rehearsal about King Richard is shut down by the government announcement that Shakespeare is about to open Richard II. The Bottoms are baffled because, after all, who writes Richard II after Richard III?

Nick seeks the advice of third-rate seer Nostradamus (not the famous one but his nephew Thomas). In one of the most hilarious production numbers of the show and the season, he foresees what will be a success in the theater of the future: Believe it or not, actors will stop speaking and start singing… and dancing. Something called “musicals.” The riff-raff in the seedy neighborhood are enlisted to demonstrate the meme-ist, punniest, outrageously overproduced showstopper in some time, all fronted by the delightfully deranged leadership of The Producers’ alumni Brad Oscar as the soothsayer. The result is a slam bang, joke-crammed, all-out, tap and dance number that brought four or five distinct waves of applause the night we saw it, much of it for the wild-eyed Oscar.

An excerpt:

NICK: An actor is saying his lines and then, out of nowhere, he just starts singing??
NICK: Well, that is the…
NOSTRADAMUS: Remarkably, they won’t think that.

So the Bottom Brothers start to pen a woebegone musical with their own troupe, borrowing money for the venture from a shylock called Shylock. But their effort is being spied upon by Shakespeare who senses some competition.

Granted, it really is just one premise/joke run through the comedy meat grinder over and over and over again until there’s nothing left. But it is executed in every department from writing to performing to the selection of props with such verve, enthusiasm and, secretly, professional polish that it rates as one of the funniest works on Broadway in some time. You’d have to go back to Spamalot and The Producers (which are not just emulated but referenced) to be that enchanted by something so happily witless and calorie-free.

The humor, verbal and visual, comes every few seconds, sometimes more than one joke simultaneously and if one falls flat or a section slows a bit (it does happen) the audience is guaranteed a half-dozen knee slappers around the bend.

It’s acted with the abandon of madmen released from the asylum into a fine spring day after a decade’s confinement, especially Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani as the brothers, and Christian Borle as a scene-stealing and scenery-chomping Shakespeare. But every cast member down to the ensemble is in there with every bulging eye pop and ball change.

Doubtless Something Rotten will tour to South Florida in a few years and it will be the kind of don’t-miss ticket that The Book of Mormon was, although Mormon secretly has more heft and thought behind it. But the Broadway edition is sumptuously, almost profligately mounted with what seems like an open checkbook, and that might not be duplicated on the road.

The book is by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, with the music and lyrics by Kirkpatrick and brother Wayne Kirkpatrick. No, I haven’t heard of them either. Doubtless, the final product was also heavily influenced by director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone). The creative team’s work includes sumptuous costumes by Gregg Barnes, lighting by Jeff Croiter and Tudor timbered thatched scenic design by Scott Pask. We mention all of them because you likely won’t and shouldn’t notice that what might seem like an undisciplined and anarchic college lark actually is a carefully constructed and precisely mounted production.

Like the soon-to-close comedy, It’s Only A Play, to be reviewed next week, this is inside baseball, but it’s accessible to anyone who has been watching musicals on Broadway or on tour for the past couple of decades.

D’Arcy James, who has tackled the high drama of next to normal and the low comedy of Shrek, does something quietly amazing. His character as written only has a couple of dimensions and a couple of emotional notes to play. But he creates a three-dimensional protagonist that the audience immediately likes and who carries us through this silliness, especially as the play began to sag in the last few scenes. He looks like a matinee idol and sings like a Rodgers & Hammerstein leading man, but he has the soul of a clown.

Borle, who has proven to have a wide range, is indeed best known as a clown including his brilliant Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher. But Nicholaw has wisely encouraged him to let out all the stops. He has less stage time than you think, especially in the first act, but his ham-on-rye Shakespeare is Nathan Lane-caliber (singing “It’s Hard to be the Bard” and asking “Is it good to see me, or what?)

When the two leads are together, such as in a semi-challenge tap dance-off, it’s musical comedy heaven.

The evening is stuffed – really stuffed – with a non-stop barrage of self-references, sight gags, snippets of classic Shakespearean gems artfully woven in, intentional anachronisms (remember Stan Freeberg and Richard Armour’s Classics Reclassified?) and puns. But most notable are the half lines of dialogue, stray lyric and bars of music quoting and riffing on Dreamgirls, Phantom, Pippin, Fiddler. Honestly, you name it, it’s there. Many bits last barely two seconds such as when a bunch of characters are on their knees scrubbing the floor like the Annie orphans. Blink and you’ll miss one, but there are three just waiting in the wings.

The daffy demented wallow – from the content to the expense mounting this production — is a kind of validation for us theater nerds that there is a successful market for the art form we cherish.

Get thee to a punnery. Or the St. James Theatre.

Our reviews of other Tony-nominated shows:

It’s Only A Play:

On The 20th Century:

Fun Home:

Hand to God:


The Last Ship:

You Can’t Take It With You:

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