Theater Review: SOMETHING ROTTEN! (National Tour reviewed in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on July 13, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

Post image for Theater Review: SOMETHING ROTTEN! (National Tour reviewed in Chicago)

SOMETHING SILLY;
NOT QUITE ROTTEN BUT HARDLY FRESH

What is it about William Shakespeare that inspires lesser authors (namely, everyone else) to try to take him down? George Bernard Shaw spent his life seeking to supplant or at least discount that other playwright. In Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard imagines the world’s greatest writer as an opportunist who steals his stuff, specifically Romeo and Juliet, from everything he overhears and everyone he meets.

And in the Tony-nominated 2015 musical Something Rotten—book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick—Hamlet is actually filched by the Bard, a self-important Elizabethan “rock star” celebrity, from his rival poet Nigel Bottom, a scribbler who puts sincerity over style.

For fun and profit, it seems, 401 years after his death, Shakespeare is just too big not to be cut down to size. Now playing Chicago’s Oriental Theatre on a national tour, this sublimely silly two-act trifle trivializes the best thing that ever happened to the English language as it purports to invent the musical.

Something Rotten (an allusion of course from Hamlet) is the inside story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, plucky orphan brothers from Cornwall come to London to make it big (the opener “Welcome to the Renaissance,” is peppily delivered by the Minstrel, Nick Rashad Burroughs). The charming sibling is self-effacing Nigel (amiable Josh Grisetti) who’s perilously in love with Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), a poet-loving maiden whose closeted Puritan dad Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote) wants to close down the Rose and all other Elizabethan theaters.

Nigel’s other challenge is Nick Bottom (Rob McClure), his extroverted, dementedly driven brother who hates Shakespeare for all the wrong reasons. Nick’s pregnant and proto-feminist lover Bea (Maggie Lakis) wants to become the first real female actor (“Right Hand Man”) in a Tudor troupe.

Anyway, egged on by Thomas Nostradamus (vaudevillian Blake Hammond), a venal soothsayer who clumsily channels the future, Nick in effect concocts the musical comedy. In a delirious moment of theatrical inspiration, Nick comes up with a concept of songs in a show and dancing added to acting. The highlight of this rough-hewed romp, the first-act, tap-dancing production number “A Musical,” becomes an anthology of crowd-pleasing in-jokes and showbiz references to future Broadway sensations: Yes, in 1595 a theatrical genre is born from the desire to compete with Shakespeare’s successes.

Then there’s literally Shakespeare in a park, specifically Will Shakespeare (Broadway sensation Adam Pascal), a former player in Bottom’s ensemble whose effortless excellence (insufferably proclaimed in the triumphant anthem “Will Power”) drives his contemporaries crazy and unsettles him as well (“Hard to Be the Bard”). But this narcissistic playwright is not above disguising himself as “Toby Belch” to infiltrate Nick’s company and pilfer Nigel’s initial draft for the Bottom brothers’ first-ever musical.

According to Nostradamus’ inept prophecy of Shakespeare’s next big hit, that enterprise must be “Omelette! The Musical,” a silly spectacle (“It’s Eggs!”) that contains the elaborate and unarguably terrific “Make an Omelette” blow-out dance number, complete with Gregg Barnes’ yolk-like costumes. Larcenously obtained by Shakespeare from Nigel’s sole sincere composition, the actual Hamlet (“To Thine One Self”) turns out to be stolen goods. (So much for acknowledging the still-threatening genius of the Swan of Avon.)

Persecution by Portia’s hypocritical dad (in a courtroom scene inevitably lifted from The Merchant of Venice) drives the Bottoms and their feeders, including a certain unofficial play backer named Shylock (Jeff Brooks), to flee to new opportunities in the New World. They may not get the new country house they wanted but they’ll have a house in a new country. That, along with easy anachronisms, groaner puns and salacious innuendoes, is about as witty as this dialogue ever gets.

It’s never smart for a lesser musical to remind you of so many better ones. But in “The Black Death” (a tryout song that fails fast), among other derivations, Something Rotten! works overtime to fail to equal Spamalot or The Producers. Overall the Kirkpatricks’ lyrics are lame, the melodies forgettable, the songs only serviceable and the script dumbed-down for mass appeal. But, thanks to Casey Nicholaw’s semi-enthralling staging and choreography and the wizard trick-acting from this huge cast, Rotten! really isn’t. It’s not half bad. But it sure ain’t Shakespeare.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

Something Rotten!
National Tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
at the Oriental Theatre until July 23, 2017
for tickets, call 800.775.2000
or visit Broadway in Chicago
**tour continues until May, 2018
for dates and cities, visit Something Rotten!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Herb Simpson July 14, 2017 at 1:46 am

I laughed and enjoyed this musical, feeling much as I do about Ru Paul’s drag contests: almost as much fun, but never quite up to the level of the real thing.

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