It doesn’t sound like much of an epitaph for a Broadway season, but Something Rotten is indeed the title of the last show to open before the deadline for a 2015 Tony nomination. Happily, the title is just part of its youthful charm for there’s nothing rotten about this joyous musical. Its heart is always in the right place, sort of where a college musical romp would be. There are exaggerated cod pieces on all the gents, there are all sorts of sophomoric references to bottoms and other parts of the anatomy, there’s even a sprightly tune with sprightly lyrics warning the crowd that the Black Death is on the way. It’s sort of Kiss Me Kate without Cole Porter’s score. It tried hard to get off the ground with a “Brush Up Your Shakespeare: or a “Comedy Tonight” of its own, and “Welcome to the Renaissance” does introduce us to most of the company with great esprit.
No, it’s not a master work, but it does bring us a swell idea for a musical by the Kirkpatrick Brothers, Karey and Wayne, as executed by them with the help of John O’Farrell on book, three writers with a sense of the ridiculous, who’ve come to the theatre with lots of background in every field – except theatre. With what I’m certain was tough love and good guidance from Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin and The Book of Mormon) they have come up with an irreverent romp that takes pot shots at everything and everyone from William Shakespeare to just about anything any of us have ever held sacred. And it’s performed by one of the best collection of clowns and roustabouts ever assembled for one theatre piece.
At the top of the list is Brian d’Arcy James who has been seen before playing less loony people like the disturbed husbands in Next to Normal and Time Stands Still, the very dark press agent in Sweet Smell of Success, the doomed telegraph operator in Titanic. He’s played in Macbeth and Giant, and though Shrek, in which he was hidden beneath a ton of makeup, was a cartoon musical, his characterization of the lovable ogre was tender and sweet. Now, as the older brother Nick Bottom, he lets loose with hidden talents as a singer, dancer and clown that makes him a lovable lunatic. His baby brother Nigel Bottom, who is slightly hysterical, is beautifully realized by John Cariani.
Christian Borle, perhaps best known for his take on Captain Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher for which he won a Tony Award, has turned Will Shakespeare into a godlike rock star, the biggest name in mid-sixteenth century England. Dressed in tight leather jeans, he enters the proceedings later than the others, and when he does he makes it clear why Nick and Nigel get so sing “God, I hate Shakespeare” not once, but twice – for he has everything the hapless Bottom Brothers want. They can’t get arrested as playwrights, everything they’ve written has failed big time, and in desperation they turn to a soothsayer for advice and what they get is made crystal clear as performed for them by the always reliable Brad Oscar who raises the roof with “A Musical.” Rarely has a number been better built, and Oscar emerges as a force to be reckoned with, as he and virtually the entire cast bring it home to its rousing conclusion.
Others keep the ball in the air throughout the evening. Brooks Ashmanskas, who’s been waiting for a role in a hit into which he can sink even his talented teeth, has found one in Brother Jeremiah, a Puritan leader with a dopey blonde beautiful daughter, but a zealot with secret cravings that are hinted at again and again. To watch Ashmanskas let us in on one of them with nothing more than a raised eyebrow or a furrowed brow is to watch a master clown who belongs right where he is — in the middle of a big Broadway musical comedy.
As his daughter Portia, Kate Reinders meets Nigel Bottom and spends the rest of the evening cleverly maneuvering her way into the frightened lad’s life. As Lord Clapham and the Minister of Justice, Peter Bartlett’s dry delivery makes its mark each time he utters a word.
Heidi Blickenstaff, as Nick Bottom’s adoring wife, has her big moment with “Right Hand Man” and does it so well she gets to do it again in the second act. There should be an award for the best ensemble of the season, and this one would win, for everyone in it is behaving as though the material is pure gold, and as a result we all have a mighty fine time.
The authors have natural talent. Some of this material misses its mark, and the score does not come near the brilliance of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate or Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but it is more than serviceable and often, at least, catchy and stage-worthy. Kevin McCollum and his sixteen associate producers must have had some budget constraints because though the costumes of the period by Gregg Barnes are almost on a par with those in Wolf Hall (also mid-sixteenth century), the sets are adequate at best and downright dingy for the big finish in the finale.
The sound design is excessive, but only interferes in the big ensemble numbers where the lyrics are swallowed by the music and the glorious voices that have been assembled become piercing. It’s not the worst sound design in the current season, but it’s light years behind the masterful job done by Scott Lehrer on The King and I which accommodates a much larger cast. I only mention over-excessive sound again and again because Broadway has always been the last bastion of “live theatre” and we should not have to wait for the Original Cast CD to hear and enjoy the lyrics and the natural voices, somehow better modulated on discs than in most Broadway houses these days.
I won’t quibble though. It’s refreshing to have another original musical in town, one in which a gifted cast and some welcome new writers have brought us a rare chance to forget your troubles and let your hair down. I don’t have enough hair, but you know what I mean.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.