Broadway: Something Rotten! Beguiles and Amazes

Something Rotten! 2016 (all photos: Joan Marcus)

Something Rotten! is a modern musical set in the Renaissance, before musicals were created, with a cast that sings and dances its way into the very first and biggest one. Sure it's just another quick witted, iambic pentameter rhyming, future predicting meta-musical. Who hasn't done that yet? This one parodies American musical theater as well as crafting impossibly funny absurd songs of its own, with a disastrously clever finale as surprising and brilliant as the finale of Springtime for Hitler. This is why it was nominated for 10 Tony awards last year.

Brian d'Arcy James in Something Rotten! 2016

From the first moment of the opening song "It's the Renaissance" sung by minstrel Andre Ward, who artfully explains how awful the middle ages have been, and now everything is new! you know you're in unique musical comedy territory. Lead actor Brian d'Arcy James, (a veteran Broadway performer who received his third Tony nomination in this part), plays Nick Bottom to brother Nigel (John Cariani). James is perfect casting, rock solid as a song and dance man, who can also balance the difficult task of playing his own comedy cleverly, while being the straight man to more absurd supporting cast members that surround him. As the chorus sings about their adulation for Shakespeare, their superstar, we learn how the Bottom brothers feel in 'God I Hate Shakespeare', as their own theater is struggling. But it's not until Shakespeare himself appears in 'Will Power' in a concert in the park, singing his rock and roll witticisms, (Christian Borle, who won the 2015 Tony last year for his role as Shakespeare), that you realize you have to pause and reflect on the unusual levels of cleverness built into this production. When Shakespeare goes undercover into the Bottom Brothers' play to learn the competitions' plans, things get even more bizarre and enjoyable.

You get at least two musicals for the price of one, if not sixty. The musical is a uniquely funny romp into ridiculousness. And as the Bottom Brothers' musical is being invented, the singers stumble and bang their way hilariously through many musical clichés and choreographic styles from Gower Champion (42nd Street) to Michael Bennet (Chorus Line) to Bob Fosse (Chicago) creating great gags. The dancers' intricately woven choreography assures that the show doesn't stop for a second.

Brad Oscar and Brian d'Arcy James in Something Rotten!

It's not unusual in such a broad comedy to have stand-out supporting players who rival the great leads, but this show has three. Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), the portly and addled soothsayer has continual fragmented future forecasts that predict the rest of the show. One of the delights of this production is when Thomas Nostradamus explains to Nick Bottom that the future of theater is something called 'A Musical', in which people sing instead of talking on stage. At which point Brian d'Arcy James turns center stage and breaks into song about how impossibly stupid that is so who would believe it? As 'A Musical' comes to life on stage before us, it's one of the best musical numbers I've seen on the Broadway stage. Brilliant set design by Scott Pask allows the dark Elizabethan back alley to break down and fly away revealing colorful backdrops, dazzling lights and a coterie of comely girls for a Zeifgield folly costume-scape finale. Something Rotten! goes on this, way, irreverent, hysterical, smart, and inspiring.

Christian Borle (center) as Shakespeare

Christian Borle (Shakespeare) embodies a perfectly self pleased Bard, a supremely over confident superstar who actually deserves all the praise he gets but lays the insincerity on so thickly to his fans and followers you have to admire the take down of this beloved icon. Shakespeare's song "Hard To Be The Bard" about the damning isolation and difficulty in the actual craft of writing, is not only funny, but gives a little depth to his practiced superficiality. Ned's wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff), is equally artful as she plays the supportive spouse, then sings (and dresses) as a man (multiple times) to take multiple jobs to support the Bottom brothers during their endless struggles. Her jobs include bear poop cleaning, lifting enormous logs and being a lawyer. As she sings and performs, as both a man and a woman, we get to appreciate not only her cleverness, but get another nod to Shakespeare's art and use of identity swapping in his plays. In fact there are many Shakespearean secrets hidden in the production, including all the character names which are from the Bard's various plays.

John Cariani, Brian d'Arcy James and Heidi Blickenstaff in Something Rotten!

But you don't have to be a lover of Shakespeare to appreciate the musical, as the simple story of two under dogs from the gutter, trying their best to beat the top dog, is as simple as it gets.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who directed Aladdin, and co-directed The Book of Mormon, the show is always active, kinetic, but hits the heartfelt moments just right as the performers easily trade between a realistic dramatic tone, to full blown scene stealing in brilliantly lit show tunes like "The Black Death!" the Bottom Brothers' first musical attempt which doesn't go so well. A special nod to the writers is required but the adjectives are not yet created to describe their cleverness; music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.

Something Rotten! is to Shakespeare what The Producers was to Hitler. A puerile, silly, escapist bit of genius that tears down everything big about history and replaces it with a sublime wit, panache and absurdist idiocy, all simply to make us laugh, and all we wish in return is that the show keeps going and never ends.

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