'Something Rotten!': Theater Review

Smells like a hit, a very palpable hit

Brian d'Arcy James plays a struggling theater artist going up against Christian Borle's rock-star Shakespeare in this cheeky musical comedy set in Elizabethan England.

The Shakespearean references come thick and fast, along with the winking nods to a whole plethora of modern musicals, in Something Rotten! But the laughs in this rambunctious comedy by Broadway newcomers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, written with British humorist John O'Farrell and buoyed by a top-drawer cast, don't require comprehensive recall of classical theater or a particular receptiveness for arcane Broadway in-jokes. This is a big, brash meta-musical studiously fashioned in the mold of Monty Python's Spamalot, The Producers and The Book of Mormon, loaded with crowd-pleasing showstoppers, deliciously puerile gags and an infectious love of the form it so playfully skewers.

While it's been done countless times before, watching a musical that pokes fun at the very idea of a musical remains irresistible sport, especially when the digs are as celebratory as these. There's nothing mean-spirited even in the taunts aimed at frequent spoof targets like Cats or Les Miserables. The first-act high point is a riotous self-parodying number simply titled "A Musical," which represents with mounting excitement everything that's ludicrous and wonderful about the form at its most ebullient — people bursting into spontaneous song; perky chorus members thronging the stage; an explosion of tappers, fan-dancing showgirls and a kickline; even the magnificently cheesy tradition of the encore reprise.

There's no director-choreographer better equipped to stage such an irreverent homage than Casey Nicholaw, whose adoration for the unbridled excesses of old-school razzle-dazzle has been evident in his work on shows from Spamalot and Mormon through The Drowsy Chaperone and Aladdin. If the songs themselves are standard-issue show-tunes, they are elevated by dynamic staging and performances. Nicholaw can spin froth into a full-bodied confection, even if this one cries out for something more substantial at the finish. But while Something Rotten! might have benefited from a more robust second act and a punchier closing number, the show is clever enough in its impish desecration of highfalutin history to make it a very agreeable lark.

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The Kirkpatrick brothers (whose separate credits run from country and pop-rock hits to writing animated features like Chicken Run) begin with a textbook opening number, "Welcome to the Renaissance." Led by Michael James Scott as a lute-strumming minstrel, the song starts in period with a farewell to the grim Middle Ages, and then ignites into cheerfully anachronistic liftoff as the ensemble revels in the age of rebirth, replete with a funky dance break. It's an energetic starter that sets the tone and flavor, establishes the brand of humor, and provides a teasing glimpse of the main antagonist, William Shakespeare (Christian Borle).

While Romeo and Juliet is a theatrical smash, ambitious stage practitioner Nick Bottom (Brian d'Arcy James) and his more sensitive collaborator brother Nigel (John Cariani) can’t catch a break. Their planned drama about Richard II gets shut down when they learn that Shakespeare has a play based on the same subject in the works, and their effete patron (Peter Bartlett) threatens to withdraw his support. Nick proclaims his frustration in the furiously funny rant, "God, I Hate Shakespeare." But Nigel is a secret fan, as is the lovely Portia (Kate Reinders), a seraphic blonde whose huffy father, Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas, hilarious), leads the Puritan anti-theater crusade.

The early scenes do a tidy job introducing the significant characters, all of them played by first-rate stage performers. Among them is Heidi Blickenstaff as Nick's wife Bea, a proto-feminist happy to go out and be the breadwinner, which further demoralizes her husband; and Gerry Vichi as Shylock, a money-lender eager to get into producing despite the sniffy attitudes toward Jews. The turning point comes when Nick decides the way to spot the next big stage trend is by consulting a soothsayer, bringing him to Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), nephew of the legendary prophesier. Somehow bypassing opera, the clairvoyant espies a future in which stories are dramatized in song and dance; one gargantuan production number later, Nick sees it too.

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The comedic bombardment of "A Musical" is such that the show risks imbalance by peaking early and then never quite matching those heights. But the writers toss gags at the wall with such relentless vigor that a formidable number of them stick. In terms of bad-taste fun, the Bottom brothers' first stab at a musical, "The Black Death," with dancing, scythe-wielding Grim Reapers, is cute. However, the real evidence that Something Rotten! has more than one fabulous showstopper up its sleeve comes with "Will Power." In that song, the outrageously preening Borle struts for his worshipful fans like a 16th century Mick Jagger-meets-Prince, drunk on the sweet elixir of fame and backed by hunky male dancers in black leather.

Gregg Barnes' costumes are witty and eye-catching throughout, but the glam-rock peacock finery worn by Shakespeare is his masterstroke, naturally with a codpiece that puts everyone else's to shame. Scenic designer Scott Pask returns to the cartoonish visual style that served him well on The Book of Mormon, with sets that look like pop-up Tudor storybooks, drenched in vibrant shades from Jeff Croiter's lighting.

Developments after intermission hinge on a lame old joke concerning Nostradamus' misreading of the title of Shakespeare's future hit, Hamlet. But the writers and Nicholaw run so far with it that resistance is futile, and the resulting splashy number from the Bottoms' musical is goofy fun. But the second-act high point is arguably a fantasy in which the star-crossed lovers, Nigel and Portia, imagine a future where their hearts can be free. This sparks an ecstatic gospel-style roof-raiser called "We See the Light," in which Brother Jeremiah loses his sullen pout and gets rhythm. The fact that uplifting numbers in this vein have become a Broadway cliche is part of the joke.

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The late-action plotting could be sharper, as the underhand behavior of both Nick and Will is revealed. But there's an amusing plagiarism angle that reflects drolly on the persistent doubts about the authorship of some of Shakespeare's works. And the happy outcome provides a fancifully conceivable revisionist history for the origin of the American musical. Even if the show doesn't finish as strongly as it starts, its giddy high spirits prevail.

In terms of the cast, every one of the principals gets his or her moment. Cariani and Reinders make a charming romantic duo (he's neurotic and nerdy, she's beatific and kind); Blickenstaff's warmth and humor beef up a marginal role, providing the obligatory bit of Shakespearean cross-dressing; and Oscar (the original Franz Liebkind in The Producers) is a hoot as the fortuneteller who opens a valve and then can't shut it off, receiving fuzzy signals from the future musical realm with a mix of fascination and fear: "Little Shop of… Whores?" Channeling Tim Curry, Borle is an uproarious scene-stealer who delivers big time in the flashiest part. But it's the enormously appealing James' prickly humor and natural charisma that anchor this highly entertaining show.

Finally, a round of applause for orchestrator Larry Hochman for so dexterously weaving all those purloined riffs from famous musicals into the songs.

Cast: Brian d'Arcy James, Christian Borle, John Cariani, Heidi Blickenstaff, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Bartlett, Gerry Vichi, Michael James Scott, Linda Griffin, David Hibbard, Jenny Hill, Stacey Todd Holt, Aaron Kaburick, Austin Lesch, Beth Johnson Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Angie Schworer, Eric Sciotto, Brian Shepard, Chelsea Morgan Stock, Ryan VanDenBoom, Marisha Wallace, Bud Weber

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, Broadway Global Ventures, CMC, Mastro/Goodman, Jerry & Ronald Frankel, Morris Berchard, Kyodo Tokyo, Wendy Federman, Barbara Freitag, Lams Productions, Winkler/DeSimone, Timothy Laczynski, Dan Markley, Harris/Karmazin, Jam Theatricals, Robert Greenblatt, Jujamcyn Theaters