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A loopy mashup that skews Shakespeare, the Renaissance and the history of musical theater, Something Rotten! divided critics when it opened on Broadway in 2015. Tony voters were more receptive, gracing this hilarious musical farce with 10 nominations and a win for Christian Borle as William Shakespeare, depicted here as a duplicitous, preening rock-star scribe. The touring company lands in Los Angeles with couplets, doublets, puns and prurient fun intact, inspiring energetic approbation and nearly limitless laughter on opening night.
What’s old is new in the Renaissance; items like tobacco, frozen food and flushing toilets, a modern method of depositing excrement in the street. Witty, vibrant and profane, it’s all spelled out in the show’s opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” with Nick Rashad Burrough’s Minstrel leading the company and setting a tone you might expect from director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who staged the likewise deliriously blasphemous The Book of Mormon.
The Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel (Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti), are a playwriting duo in desperate need of a hit. “I have a question about motivation,” one of their actors interjects. “Why haven’t you given up yet?” But the two are driven as much by financial concerns as by their envy of Shakespeare, whose Romeo and Juliet happens to be the toast of London.
When the brothers learn their new play about Richard II is in competition with their rival’s drama on the subject, they are forced to jettison the idea for something else. In desperation, Nick consults soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), nephew of the famous prognosticator, who peers deep into the future to glean what will one day be popular. The result is a play called Omelette, about eggs and Danish. It will take the shape of an entirely new form, something called “A Musical,” which happens to be the title of the first-act showstopper that references virtually every classic musical imaginable, replete with kick-line, tapping chorus and fan-dancing showgirls.
Time has changed some aspects of the humor in Something Rotten!, particularly a reference to Nazis from The Sound of Music that plays differently in post-Charlottesville America. When asked if they are good or bad guys, Nostradamus isn’t sure, noting, “But I think it’s really important to get that bit right.” And Nick’s proto-feminist wife Bea (Maggie Lakis), who secretly enters the job market disguised as a man, assumes new shades in the current scandal-ridden climate.
With a sly wink to the ongoing debate about the provenance of some of Shakespeare’s plays, the Bard, incognito, joins the Bottom brothers’ company in rehearsals for Omelette. Nigel, the more talented of the two, takes his own advice, “To thine own self be true,” and writes not Omelette but Hamlet, which is purloined by Shakespeare. It’s a masterpiece inspired by his love for Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), daughter of Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote), an anti-theater crusading Puritan.
While the cast is uniformly strong, standouts include Cote, whose physical quirks and expressions come as close to Looney Tunes animation as humanly possible. It’s a performance echoed by Hammond as the buffoonish and borderline-mad Nostradamus. Amid musical theater references, the actor apes his own stage past playing Ernie in Sister Act, as well as his 2000 turn in the revival of The Music Man.
Adam Pascal (Rent) has no problem stepping in for Borle as Shakespeare, bringing brash brio to the clever lyrics of “Will Power,” as well as righteous self-pity to “Hard to Be the Bard.” McClure’s Nick effortlessly anchors the evening while Grissetti, as lovesick little brother Nigel, is sufficiently endearing, particularly in his duet “I Love the Way,” accompanying the coquettish Hurlbert.
Gregg Barnes, a Tony winner for The Drowsy Chaperone (also directed by Nicholaw), provides codpiece-heavy, period-appropriate costumes that draw from the same palette as Tony winner Scott Pask’s storybook, Tudor-style scenery. Nicholaw choreographed Spamalot, to which Something Rotten! owes some debt. And while the bawdy book by Karey Kirkpatrick, who teamed with brother Wayne on music and lyrics, doesn’t measure up to the brilliance of Monty Python, the show offers an irresistible wit that’s both sophomoric and clever.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Rob McClure, Josh Grisetti, Maggie Lakis, Blake Hammond, Autumn Hurlbert, Scott Cote, Jeff Brooks, Lucy Anders, Kyle Nicholas Anderson, Kate Bailey, Daniel Beeman, Brandon Bieber, Mandie Black, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Ian Campayno, Pierce Cassedy, Drew Franklin, Cameron Hobbs, Ralph Meitzler, Patrick John Moran, Joel Newsome, Con O’Shea-Creal, Kaylin Seckel, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Tonya Thompson, Emily Trumble, Adam Pascal
Director-choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Music, lyrics & concept: Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey Kirkpatrick
Book: Karey Kirkpatrick, John O’Farrell
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Music direction & vocal arrangements: Phil Reno
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Presented by Kevin McCollum, The Seelig Group, Ashley DeSimone, Morris Berchard, Wendy Federman, Barbara Freitag, Lams Productions, Richard Winkler, Timothy Laczynski, Jam Theatricals, Jon Yonover, Robert Greenblatt