'Something Rotten!' At The Orpheum Is A Laugh-Out-Loud Goof Tailor-Made For Theater Nerds
by Jay Barmann
Originally published on SFist
Take the truly raucous, goofy, juvenile humor of recent broadway hits like Spamalot, The Producers and The Book of Mormon, set it in Shakespeare's England in the 1590s, mash it up with an onslaught of musical theater references and toss in plenty of chuckle-worthy wordplay, Shakespearean and otherwise, and you might begin to imagine Something Rotten!, which opened last night at SHN's Orpheum Theatre on its first national tour. While it was obviously a relative hit with Broadway audiences for producers to take the show on the road — it ran a perfectly respectable 742 performances, closing after just shy of two years this past January — it was an over-the-top bit of tedium for the New York Times' Ben Brantley, and won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for leading man Christian Borle. But maybe Brantley was just getting tired of Broadway musicals dipping into what he called "sophomoric" territory with their humor, several months before the earth-shaking arrival of Hamilton in 2015, because I'd feel like a killjoy and a pretentious heel to do anything but cheer this show for all the laughs and dumb-grin-inducing musical numbers it provides, all in a
I don't get how they worked a major tap number into the musical version of Aladdin — which also happens to be part of this SHN season and also features direction and choreography from Casey Nicholaw, who also choreographed Spamalot and Book of Mormon — but I had no probably clapping for the multiple major tap numbers that work their way into Something Rotten!, despite the fact that musicals, as a form, would not exist for another couple hundred years after Shakespeare.
The story centers on the Bottom brothers, Nick (played tireless physical comedian Rob McClure) and Nigel (the winning, wide-eyed, and angel-voiced Josh Grisetti) — both of whom are played by actors who took on these roles in the latter part of the Broadway run. And their problem to solve in Act One is that they're being overshadowed by the arguably overrated Shakespeare, and they need to write a hit before their patron, Lord Clapham (played by the very funny, mincing Joel Newsome) decides to drop them, and Nick's wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) gives birth to a child. Enter a soothsayer named Nostradamus (nephew of the famous one) whom Nick pays to tell him what the next big idea in theater will be — and then comes the show's big show-stopper, a song and dance called "A Musical," in which Nostradamus basically predicts every major musical hit of the latter 20th Century (see video below if you don't care about spoilers). The wires get very crossed, however, when Nick returns to ask him to predict what Shakespeare's next big hit will be, so that he can write it first, and make it a musical. I won't spoil the whole joke for you, but suffice it to say it involves omelettes, dancing nuns, and chimney sweepers.
Nicholaw's direction hits an almost fever pitch of gag-ery by the fifth number and barely lets up thereafter — and sure, plenty of the jokes are groaners. But some of them are truly clever — and some of the lyrics by the duo of Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick are spitfire quips that breeze by almost too fast to garner the laughs they'd likely get on a second listen. And overall, Nicholaw's obvious love of musical-comedy tropes and inexhaustible pacing are elements that keep this reaching for laughs even when you think it can't reach anymore — and brace yourselves for a whole lot of "bottom" jokes.
And I also can't neglect to mention The Bard himself, William Shakespeare, who's being played in this cast by Adam Pascal of Rent fame (he played Roger in both the movie and the original Broadway cast). Something Rotten! depicts Shakespeare like a Bowie-esque rock star who sends men and women swooning whenever he enters a room, and Pascal pulls off this swagger well — as well as the goofy humor the role entails, as old Will is revealed to be a be a petty plagiarizer who's as witty and pleased with himself as he is unafraid to steal from anyone and everyone.
Fans of Shakespeare will get an extra dose of fun via all the references woven into the show, including the character of Shylock, a theater-loving Jew who becomes the Bottoms' producer/patron whom Shakespeare promises to model a nice character after; and a moment when Shakespeare disguises himself and says his name is Toby Belch.
The whole mess is over-the-top to be sure — wait 'til you see the Bottom brothers' pan-fried finished product — but fans of the Mel Brooks genre of humor and musicals combined are damn near guaranteed to leave with smiles on their faces, if not a sore diaphragm.
Something Rotten! plays through September 10 at the Orpheum. Find tickets here, or get $40 day-of rush tickets on the TodayTix app.
Below, the Broadway version of "A Musical," condensed.