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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But hold on, that something new comes with a strong whiff of something old. Something Rotten! actually follows a long tradition of Shakespeare inspired musicals (West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, The Boys From Syracuse). Yet, the story of how the musical theater came to be as told by the Kirkpatricks and O'Farrell is not one you've heard before. Besides intentionally ditching any attempt to be historically correct, the trio's farcical tall tale is told with a wink and a nod to a lot of other multiple joke filled shows. The faux history takes us back to the 90's, that is the 1590's when Shakespeare first achieved rock star fame without the Internet or Facebook or Twitter.
For starters, the title is borrowed from Shakespeare's most popular play and the main character is named after Midsummer Night's Nick Bottom. The Kirkpatricks being brothers themselves obviously felt Nick should have a sibling. And so, in keeping with the widely circulated advice to write what you know about, the Something Rotten! plot echoes the Kirkpatrick brothers's own efforts to come up with a concept for a Broadway musical.
As the Kirkpatricks called on John O'Farrell to help them develop a show with Broadway hit potential, so struggling playwright Nick enlists the nephew and namesake of the famous soothsayer Nostradamus to help him and his brother come up with a hit
The brothers' show business work is at a dead end because an actor who they unwisely advised to write plays has become an impossible to compete with super star. You guessed it; his name is William Shakespeare. And according to Nostradamus, the only way to compete with him is to do a play that focuses its story telling on singing and dancing. In short, to create a new genre to be known as a musical. This sage advice leads into a nifty, show-stopping Rockettes style production number ("A Musical").
To complicate this zany backstage story, the Bard is very protective of his standing as London theater goers' darling. He apparently doesn't realize that his celebrity will not be subject to Andy Warhol's predictions about fame's short duration. Consequently, he does his utmost to sabotage the Bottoms' musical enterprise. Given their fledgling show's name, Omelette (which actually has a song named "Make an Omelette" and one called "It's Eggs") they need to find a way to tap into a more workable concept. Clearly "To Thine Own Self Be True" is the song that will embody Rotten's theme — though there IS also a song called "Something Rotten."
Musical theater aficionados will eat up the constant tongue-in-cheek references, not just to Shakespeare's works and characters, but to musicals generally. That said, not every joke is a home run. Those who don't attend the theater as often won't "get" all the insider references. What they will get is a terrific cast performing at the top of their game, Casey Nicholaw's as usual peppy direction and choreography, and lots of colorful and varied design work (Scott Pask's witty sets, beautifully colored by lighting designer Jeff Croiter and Gregg Barnes period perfect costumes).
The songs aren't hummers but the lyrics are apt and the presentation is vivid and lively, much like Nicholaw's still running hit Alladin . "I Hate Shakespeare" isn't quite on a par with Kiss Me Kate's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", but it is a a catchy explanation of Nick Bottom's frustration at being bested by the Bard.
Brian D'Arcy James, who plays Nick, had to cut short his show-stopping gig as King George in Hamilton. His triple-threat performance here should pay off with several awards. John Cariani, whose nebbishy charm I first admired when he played the tailor in Fiddler on The Roof, is a fine foil for his big brother.
If Borle's Will reminds you of his Captain Hook in Peter and the Star Catcher, I guess that's just fine and dandy since his Hook just about stole that show. The tendency for actors seeming to be replaying winning roles is not limited to Borle. Though Brad Oscar is almost unrecognizable in Nostradamus's grizzly wig and beard, his inspired way comedic shtik does kick up memories of his Tony nominated role in The Producers. So again, it doesn't really matter. Oscar is terrific whether camping it up in more serious roles like his Barrington Stage portrayal of the title character in Fiddler On the Roof. There a re plenty of other opportunities for the minor as well as major players and the large ensemble to strut their stuff.
Nick's wife Bea(a perky Heidi Blickenstaff) is ready and eager to go in the face of Elizabethan restrictions against women on stage. Brother Nigel's love affair with a Puritan maiden named Portia (Kate Reinders), a Kristen Chenoweth look and sound-alike, runs into objections from her father, the straight-laced Brother Jeremiah (with Brooks Ashmanskas managing to be amusingly swishy even as a man of the cloth).
The all's well that ends well finale doesn't happen before Nick falls into the hands of a money lender. Naturally, his name is Shylock (a droll Gerry Vichi) and the show's final Bardian riff is a Merchant of Venice trial presided over by the Master of Justice (Peter Bartlett). That trial insures that the musical theater will indeed thrive and that the Bard will have a chance to add another feather in his cap.
Something Rotten! is as more lowbow than highbrow and it lacks the kind of all-ages appeal for 4-ticket buying families. Neither is it as uniquely original as Fun Home. It's unlikely to have the durability of the writer they lean on so unapologetically or a golden era musical gem like The King and I (which currently enjoying a thrilling revival at Lincoln Center but also began life at the St. James). But it will be a winner with all who enjoy new-fangled takes on old-fashioned musical parodies.