Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle headline a Bard-stormingly funny new musical
If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results then we might reasonably question the mental health of the folks who put up the reported $14.5 million budget for Something Rotten! Why? Because this rambunctious, song-stuffed confection details the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of a musical’s creation—a description that could be used to describe the doomed, and not-that-long-ago terminated, NBC series Smash. Throw in the fact that the cast of Something Rotten! is led by two Broadway stars who appeared in that self-same venture—Christian Borle and Brian d’Arcy James—and the temptation to start checking on strait-jacket supplies might become hard to resist.
But then–as Something Rotten! repeatedly reminds us–if you’re looking for an art form that routinely transmutes the unlikeliest of base metals into box office gold, then the musical is (to paraphrase The Sound of Music) a very good place to start your search.
Set in Renaissance London, Something Rotten! stars d’Arcy James as an unsuccessful actor called Nick Bottom, a name that–like so much here–deliberately straddles the line between smart and dumb. Nick is desperate for a hit show capable of solving family financial woes and wiping the smug smirk from the face of Borle’s egomaniacal William Shakespeare, who since being fired from Bottom’s company for his terrible thesping has gone on to become, well, William Shakespeare. As the show opens, Nick is prepping a play about Richard II, but swiftly abandons the project after learning the Bard of Avon has had the same idea (“Why is he doing Richard II? He’s just done Richard III! Who goes backwards?”).
Bottom’s callow, passive playwright brother Nigel (John Cariani) wants them to stage a personal tale, which would mine the sibling’s own history. However, Nick is obsessed with coming up with something capable of turning the theatrical world on its ear and seeks out the help of soothsayer named Nostradamus—but not that Nostradamus. Played with deranged energy by Brad Oscar (a Tony nominee for his performance as Franz Liebkind in The Producers), this fortune-teller proves spot-on in his prediction that something called “the musical” will dominate, but proves foggy when dispensing details about successful examples of the form. The latter also proves misleading in his assertion that that Shakespeare’s biggest success will arrive with a play…about an omelette.
Something Rotten! is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the co-director and choreographer of The Book of Mormon (which this resembles a little) who also managed the hoofing on the Borle-starring Spamalot (which this resembles a lot). Nicholaw’s helming makes double sense given that the folks responsible for authoring the show—brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who penned the songs, and British comedy writer John O’Farrell—are all Broadway novices. The writing team cram the book with finely-honed, Shakespeare-related gags which riff on everything from the Bard’s formidable ability to invent words to The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock. The latter is here played, quite deliciously, by Gerry Vichi and reimagined as a lovable theatre nut desperate to be immortalized in one of Shakespeare’s plays (“I can see it now: Shylock, the Really Nice Jew!”).
The songs, too, rarely betray the inexperience of their authors in the ways of the Great White Way. Borle’s number “Will Power” is a gloriously rocking slice of self-love while the funk-gospel track “We See the Light” winningly details the hopes of star-crossed lovers Nick and Portia (Kate Reinders) that those who would prevent their union will change their tune. And then there is the just plain mighty Act I number “A Musical,” an epic production in which Nostradamus shows Nick how to construct an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza (“What the hell are you doing now?” queries Nick at one point. “It’s called a dance break!” arrives the reply).
“A Musical” is such a showstopper it threatens to render the rest of the show something of a comparative damp squib, and the many subsequent jokes and numbers invoking the lunacy of musicals do become a little repetitive. What carries you through is the evident fun being had by the cast, which also includes Heidi Blickenstaff as Nick’s long-suffering, proto-feminist wife and Brooks Ashmanskas as Brother Jeremiah, Portia’s literally Puritanical but clearly closeted father. Borle, in particular, seems to be having the best time possible while clothed with his portrayal of Shakespeare as a preening, Frank-N-Furter-esque monster. Will he and the company’s efforts be rewarded this time around with a ‘smash’? Forsooth, we thinkest they will. B+