Something Rotten! – St James Theatre, New York

Something Rotten B-Roll

Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle in Something Rotten! at the St James Theatre, New York. Picture: Joan Marcus

Something Rotten! continues at the St James Theatre, New York.

Star rating: 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Who would have thought that an off-hand reference to Chess – a 30-year-old musical, beloved by some but forgotten by many – would get a resounding laugh from a Broadway audience in 2015? Well, it did the other night, and it tells you a lot about Something Rotten! This new musical is a delightfully good-natured but emphatically smartass frolic aimed directly at Shakespeare nerds and musical theatre rats.

(If the latter term is unfamiliar, let’s say they are the bedraggled-looking kids who do the dirty work at off-the-radar, educational and other no-pay playhouses and then gather round the piano to sing show tunes until dawn.) And if you scratch a typical Broadway audience person, even with his or her tourist garb or premium-ticket stub, you’re likely to find one or the other, or both.

Something Rotten! is also a brave, big-budget enterprise, whose enthusiastic producers cancelled a scheduled out-of-town tryout to bring the show directly to New York. Furthermore, it’s the brainchild of musical theatre novices, two brothers named Kirkpatrick. Wayne Kirkpatrick is a Nashville, Tennessee, songwriter, and Karey is a screenplay writer, who has done some movie directing. Together they’re credited with music, lyrics and concept, while Karey collaborated on the book with John O’Farrell, a comic author from the UK.

It’s a song-and-dance mash-up that plunders quotes from all over the Shakespeare canon while nodding gleefully to musicals past and present, from the aforementioned Chess to Dreamgirls and The Phantom of the Opera. In the cheerfully, bouncy score, you’ll hear ‘Chorus Line-y’ rhymed with ‘shake your heinie’.

There are, however, practiced hands at the wheel. Producer Kevin McCollum has won three Tony Awards for Best Musical: In the Heights; Avenue Q and Rent. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw boasts such credits as Aladdin, The Book of Mormon and The Drowsy Chaperone. One big measure of their success so far with Something Rotten! is ten nominations for the 2015 Tony Awards.

The script takes us back to a disco version of Elizabethan England, realised smartly in Gregg Barnes’ costumes and Scott Pask’s slightly cartoon-ish sets. Two struggling playwrights, the Bottom brothers – Nick and Nigel – can’t get a hit because all anybody wants to see is the stuff being churned out by William Shakespeare, whose latest, Romeo and Juliet, has London agog.

Nick, the more aggressive Bottom, in a desperate move to determine the next big thing, seeks out the soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (his uncle is the more famous Nostradamus), who tells him of the eventual onset of musicals. These are shows, he explains, where people stop talking to sing and dance; sometimes they don’t talk at all, but just hold long notes. When Nick says that sounds miserable, Nostradamus corrects him: No, it’s Les Misérables. And with the help of almost the whole company, he demonstrates what a musical is in an extended showstopper, complete with taps, kick line and head sketches (that’s Elizabethan for headshots).

Fortified with this knowledge, Nick goes back to his theatre to create the first musical. His initial effort is a tuner about the Black Death, but it’s fraught with the aroma of failure and is closed down before opening. Nick then returns to Nostradamus to find out what Shakespeare’s greatest play ever will be and steal that idea. The prophet, whose foresight is a little blurred, comes up with ‘Omelette’. And so we have ‘Make an Omelette’, the big Act II showstopper, leading to further plot developments until the happy ending.

The performers gathered for this inspired nonsense don’t let one laugh escape. Brian d’Arcy James as Nick bristles with magnetic if sometimes smarmy confidence and moves inexhaustibly from one big number to the next. It’s a titanic performance that gives the proceedings a solid centre. John Cariani, as the more poetic Bottom brother Nigel subject to uncontrollable fits of nervousness, purveys an irresistible ditzy charm, matched by Kate Reinders’ Puritan lady, with whom he falls in love.

Heidi Blickenstaff makes Nick’s wife Bea a convincing 16th century feminist who even disguises herself in men’s clothes to make an appearance in law court. And there are guffaw-getting turns from Brad Oscar as the not 100%-reliable Nostradamus; Brooks Ashmanskas as a harrumphing Puritan threatening to shut down the theatres; Gerry Vichi as a Jewish money lender named (what else?) Shylock, who wants to be a producer; Peter Bartlett as a tremulous patron of the Bottoms’ theatre company, and Michael James Scott as a strutting minstrel.

The thick and scrumptious frosting on this comedy cake is Christian Borle’s Shakespeare. Borle’s Bard is a rock star of mesmerising proportions, a formidable tower of slithering, larcenous (he steals Nigel’s lines for his own) and unrelenting narcissism. You can’t take your eyes of him, and you can’t stop smiling, either.

Borle and his Something Rotten! cohorts provide a laugh-strewn course for brushing up your Shakespeare and your Musical IQ.

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Tony Award nominations – the winners and losers – News

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