Something Rotten is the definition of a post-modern musical — a dizzying pastiche of musical theatre and Shakespeare references that move at such a breakneck pace it’s difficult to catch them all through the tears of laughter streaming down your face. Now on tour and making a stop at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre courtesy of Center Theatre Group, it offers a delightful holiday alternative to more traditional fare.
When brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick debuted their tale of two brothers struggling to make their impact as writers living in Shakespeare’s shadow in Elizabethan London, they crafted a Broadway smash that earned 10 Tony nominations back in 2015. The Bottom brothers, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti), in their quest to outwit Will Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), consult a soothsayer Nostradamus (not that Nostradamus, but his nephew) who advises them that the next big thing in the theater will be “a musical.”
With two show-stopping numbers jam-packed with nods to everything from Hamlet to Annie to The Sound of Music to The Merchant of Venice, the show proves itself a winking love letter to its two sources of inspiration – musical theater and William Shakespeare. If you are even a mild fan of either, you’ll be hard-pressed not to feel yourself touched by the mile-a-minute references and the genuine affection for the subject matter (even if there is a song called “God, I Hate Shakespeare”) bursting from every sequence in the show. Centerpiece Act I number “A Musical” and the play-within-play Act II one-two punch of “Something Rotten” and “Make an Omelette” are worth the price of admission alone – indeed, “A Musical” earned a mid-show standing ovation on opening night in Los Angeles.
The show comes on tour with the same pizazz and zany humor that made it a success on Broadway intact. Rob McClure is a worthy successor to Brian d’Arcy James, if not a hair better in the role than the Broadway veteran. While James lent Nick Bottom a cynical world-weariness that suggested the character was in his middle age grasping for a last chance at success, McClure imbues Nick Bottom with a more exuberant energy – his investment in the concept of putting on “a musical” feels more frenzied than desperate and it’s that injection of vibrancy that makes him so much fun to root for. His worldview is more pragmatic than that of his starry-eyed poet brother Nigel (Josh Grisetti in a charming performance as McClure’s wonky foil), but you still feel his deep love for his profession – his almost maniacal joy as he works to write the world’s first musical lends the role a heretofore-unplumbed vim and verve. An added bonus – McClure’s wife of 12 years, Maggie Lakis, stars as his onstage wife, Bea, who borrows heavily from (or sorry, inspires) Shakespeare’s women disguised as men plot lines. She and McClure have a delicate, easy chemistry that feels lived in and altogether real.
On Broadway, Christian Borle won a Tony for his take on Shakespeare as a egotistical rock star with the guy-liner of Freddie Mercury and swagger of Mick Jagger. Pascal, perhaps best known for originating the role of Roger in Rent, steps into Will’s doublet for this touring production. If Borle was Shakespeare as Jagger, Pascal is the Bard as Bowie – more androgynous enigma than raw, overtly sexual rock god. How well you think this works likely depends on how you prefer your rock stars, but Pascal doesn’t quite ascend to the same heights Borle did in the part. While he’s known for his rock voice and more edgy performance style, those qualities make Shakespeare a bit too real in this context. Borle played him with a madcap narcissism that Pascal only manages to wink at from afar. “Will Power” and “It’s Hard to be the Bard” are still hilarious takes on England’s greatest writer and his larger-than-life legacy, but they lack the unhinged quality they possessed in Borle’s hands. Pascal is entertaining in the role (and it’s clear he’s having a hell of a good time up there), but it’s telling that he’s best in the moments when Shakespeare is disguised as Toby Belch infiltrating the Bottom brothers’ company of actors.
Overall, the production remains a hysterical romp with heavy doses of absurdity that make it one of the most fun nights at the theater in recent history. The entire company is outstanding – it doesn’t get said enough in general, but in a show like this, the ensemble is a musical’s lifeblood — major kudos are due here to a company who dance their hearts out in high-paced tap numbers and kicklines that put any workout class to shame.
From Blake Hammond’s outrageous turn as Nostradamus to Scott Cote’s take on Brother Jeremiah as a self-satisfied, barely closeted Puritanical preacher to Autumn Helbert’s squeaky, enthusiastic Portia, the cast nails the comedic antics and swelling show-tunes across the board. Methinks there’s nothing rotten about this production that’s guaranteed to cast its buoyant mood over the entire theater and send you out with a Shakespearean skip in your step. B+