I first reviewed this unselfconsciously entertaining musical comedy at the beginning of its run in April 2015. I wanted to see it again to determine how it was holding up now that five of its principal actors had left when their contracts expired. When I saw it over a year ago, I raved about Christian Borle,Brian D’Arcy James, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Brad Oscar and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the cast and the assured staging and choreography of Casey Nicholaw.
The writers were new to me, for their extensive credits were far more pop-oriented than theatrical. They’d worked with many pop stars, they’d had songs in film, they’d written screenplays,even a novel. Their names– Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who were responsible for the music and lyrics, and John O’Farrell who contributed to the writing of the original book.
It seemed to me at the time that their achievement was remarkable — for they were offering us a farcical musical tale of two brothers, unable to make a success as playwrights in Elizabethan England because of the blinding leadership of one William Shakespeare. With the help of a soothsayer, they set out to top The Bard. There are late 15th century pilgrims, an old Jewish gentleman named Shylock, lots of comely lassies, two of whom become attached to the Bottom brothers, whose quest for fame and fortune sparks the entire show. I thought perhaps the material seemed even better than it was that first time around because the original cast of young actors was so splendidly appealing, perhaps they had been more responsible than the authors for the great fun I had watching their show.
It’s now sixteen months later, and I popped in to a Wednesday matinee this week to find a wildly enthusiastic audience which included a gaggle of youngsters in the balcony, behaving as though this perfectly ordinary midweek matinee was another Opening Night. Cheers, whistles, and a general good time was had by all, including your much more wizened critic, who should have been dozing at the down spots, but there were so few of them that dozing never entered my mind.
Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s score is always melodic and stage worthy, it earns laughter for some of the inside jokes in the lyrics, and it includes a rouser called “A Musical” which does for the first Act what “Seventy Six Trombones” did for The Music Man. It stops the show cold, and then it does it again. The remarkable thing about this second year company is that it’s right up there with the originals.
Rob McClure’s “Nick Bottom” is a little loonier than was Brian D’Arcy James’ version, and Josh Grisetti is a master at physical comedy so his “Nigel Bottom” is a crazy kind of second lead, who is well matched with his brother. Will Chase has the unenviable job of matching Christian Borle’s award-winning Will Shakespeare, but he’s got all the moves, his attack on the role is tops, and he makes the most of his two major solos.
Brad Oscar is still there as Nostradamus the Soothsayer, and his work should be filmed and filed away for all to cherish in the years to come. It’s he who has the show’s blockbuster number (“A Musical”) which is odd in that he’s not the leading character in the story. But he shares the number partly with Rob McClure, and it lands with both feet – twice.
Edward Hibbert, is up to his predecessor Peter Bartlett in landing laughs from just about every syllable he utters as the Minister of Justice and some prominent member of the House of Lords. Catherine Brunell and Leslie Kritzer bring big voices and lots of verve to the two ladies who become attached to the Bottom brothers.
Mr. Nicholaw has managed somehow to keep the whole thing looking fresh as paint. Scott Pask’s scenery looks a little budget conscious, but its fluidity allows for the pace, which is frantic, to be maintained all through the show. Gregg Barnes’ costumes lend some opulence to the piece, but this is not a show about haute couture. The men’s outfits feature cod pieces that bring some laughs, and the ladies get to strut and fret their two hours time in feathers and furs, We’re dealing here with the great unwashed public though, so the limelight is on the marvelously inventive comical acting more than on the design elements.
Peter Hylenski’s sound design is in keeping with the current vogue of “loud is better”, which robs nuance, but at least it does not distort voices, and we do get to hear all the lyrics. Of course I can’t help it — I kept hearing Carol Channing, Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm, Gertrude Lawrence, Yul Brynner, Zero Mostel and dozens of others whom I saw filling that same space.
In these difficult days, it’s cheering to learn that some things do not change. There is still an abundant pool of talent which can transport us into a brighter world in which even skullduggery and artifice are attractive, a world in which no one is killing anyone.
If you’re in the mood for some silliness that is first rate, hie ye to the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street and witness once again the magic of musical comedy when it’s well done. If that doesn’t work for you, fear not. A national tour will be heading your way in January.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.