Something Rotten! at the National Theatre reminds us of why we loved theater in the first place. The Broadway show received ten Tony nominations, and this national tour is pure joy. The cast sent out into the cold February night one of the happiest audiences I have ever seen. Given that our president seems to think every day is Opposite Day, I can say this with confidence: Something Rotten! is something sensational.
The book is by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell. Music and lyrics are by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, who conceived the show. Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) combines the best of contemporary and Elizabethan theater for an evening of gloriously theatrical hilarity.
The first song, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” flies by like a dream. The company taps, kicks, dances, and sings its heart out in various farthingales, puffy pants, and convenient codpieces. Nick Rashad Burroughs has a blast as the Minstrel, movin’ on up and getting down as he sings about all sorts of Renaissance-y type things such as lutes, Walter Raleigh, and, of course, the plague (“It’s gonna hit ya!”).
Then the Puritans, led by Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote) and his comely daughter Portia (the talented Autumn Hurlbert) enter in sober garb, voicing their totally bummer belief that anything entertaining is bad: especially theater. Cote as Brother Jeremiah preaches a mean sermon with a hilariously inappropriate subtext, and he is so funny that we laugh even harder.
Our heroes, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti) Bottom, are brothers, two frustrated playwrights who can’t catch a break because Will Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) is getting the rock star treatment. Girls faint when he touches them. Shows sell out when he writes them. And, of course, all the other playwrights hate him. McClure shares their low opinion of the Bard (“He’s a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can”), but he is devastated when his new production of Richard II is canceled because, you guessed it, Shakespeare is doing one. Nick’s song “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” was delivered with such deep conviction that I was almost convinced that I hate Shakespeare myself!
The actors, Francis Flute (Patrick John Moran), Peter Quince (Con O’Shea-Creal), Tom Snout (Kyle Nicholas Anderson), Yorick (Daniel Beeman), Robin (David Rossetti), and Snug (again, Nick Rashad Burroughs) all exit, disappointed, but, as most actors do, hoping for a better opportunity.
Shylock, the resident money-lender, loves showbiz and would be only too happy to help the brothers out, were it not that it is, well, illegal. Jeff Brooks, like everyone else, has no end of fun with his role. He sports dangling ringlets on either side of his head, and utters numerous Yiddishisms, all voiced with great élan. I do think that the production might have found room for meshuggeneh. Perhaps I missed it.
Maggie Lakis is marvelous as Nick’s resourceful wife, Bea, who is ready to dress as a boy any time to help support her husband. Searching for inspiration, Nick wanders into Soothsayer Alley, where he meets Nostradamus (Blake Hammond) — or is it his nephew Thomas Nostradamus? Along with his talent for the saying of the sooth, Nostradamus has killer “jazz hands” and an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of the American theater. He convinces Nick that he should make a musical of Shakespeare’s future masterpiece, in which “a ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat” (Arthur Schwartz, That’s Entertainment). Hint: it’s playing at the Shakespeare Theatre right now. Nostradamus, who appears to be somewhat confused, believes the show is really called Omelette and is about…uh, breakfast.
Nostradamus, Nick, and the ensemble perform “A Musical,” a knockout number which references, musically and dramatically, almost every popular musical ever written. South Pacific. The Music Man. The King and I, A Chorus Line. Cats. Dreamgirls. West Side Story. The Sound of Music. Les Misérables. Phantom of the Opera. The Lion King. And many more. The combination of music, movement, and parody was utterly hypnotizing. I think I might have heard “I had a dream…I dreamed it for you, June…” but it might have been a dream. This production contains every insider theater joke you ever heard, and some you haven’t.
Every song has a distinctive presentation, with one laugh piling onto another until you can barely breathe. During “The Black Death” we see Grim Reapers dancing with their scythes, and why not? They deserve to have fun, too! Portia and Nigel fall in love as they share their interest in poetry in the beautiful duet, “I Love the Way.” In “Will Power,” Adam Pascal takes the stage as a 21st century Freddie Mercury, reveling in the adoration of fans, backed up by an extremely fit posse in black leather. The Will Power Backup Boys, Daniel Beeman, Drew Franklin, Luke Hamilton, and Con O’Shea-Creal, give their star all the energy they’ve got and more. Pascal literally shines as Will, in a glistening gold jacket and a gigantic silver ruff. His fans touch his clothing, swoon at his feet, and even hold up candles. At the after-show party, we note Will’s gift for larceny as he expresses more than casual interest in Nigel’s writing which is…well…as good as, or if you prefer, stolen from Shakespeare by those clever book writers.
The plot thickens in the second act, with dizzying speed. The battle between the brothers heightens. Nigel wants to be true to his own writing, but the practical Nick wants to go full speed ahead with Omelette despite the essential insanity of the idea. He believes it has commercial potential. A key insight we always hear about show business: Nobody knows anything. I would go further. Not only does nobody know anything. Some people have terrible ideas. Omelette is one of them. Of course, as in The Producers, the awfulness of it all is a comedic feast for us.
Shakespeare and the ensemble have a remarkable number called “It’s Hard to Be the Bard.” Despite the fable that Shakespeare never blotted a line, he blotted plenty and he wants full credit for his suffering. In “We See the Light,” the Bible-obsessed puritans literally change their tune. They follow their fantastically demented leader, Brother Jeremiah, as he gives up his holier than thou ways and commences to boogie down. Happily, they can rock and roll just as well as anyone else on the stage.
We do get to see two scenes from Omelette, and they are well worth the wait. “Something Rotten!” is sung by the troupe and “Make an Omelette!” by the company. I fulfilled a lifelong dream, of which I was unaware, by witnessing dancing eggs turn into omelets right before my eyes. The Chef Trio – Kyle Nicholas Anderson, Nick Rashad Burroughs, and Con O’Shea-Creal – cook up a veritable storm.
Patrick John Moran as the Master of the Justice and the loyal Bea (Maggie Lakis, disguised as a male attorney) wrap up matters with brisk aplomb, and the entire company say goodbye in a memorable finale.
Special praise is due to the ensemble who never miss a beat: Lucy Anders, Kyle Nicholas Anderson, Daniel Beeman, Mandie Black, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Drew Franklin, Luke Hamilton, Patrick John Moran, Joel Newsome, Con O’Shea-Creal, David Rossetti, Kaylin Seckel, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Tonya Thompson, and Emily Trumble.
Scott Pask’s scenic design is fast, fun, and furious. Everything moves! Costumes by Gregg Barnes are fabulous. The excellent Joel Newsome as Lord Clapham wears a fetching pair of mauve tights. The women wear Elizabethan outfits on top, and a sheared skirt to dance in. Blake Hammond’s Nostradamus looks, wonderfully, like Merlin on an off day. Jeff Croiter (lighting design) and Peter Hylenski (sound design) add their exceptional talents to the mix.
All acting, all singing, all dancing…Shakespeare!
As I said to a fellow audience member, “Now THAT is a musical.”
Running Time: Two and one-half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.