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

by Tony Frankel on November 22, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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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 L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre on a national tour, this silly two-act trifle trivializes the best thing that ever happened to the English language as it creates a troupe which 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 (sadly, the lyrics are completely garbled in the opener “Welcome to the Renaissance,” peppily delivered by an over-hyped Minstrel, Nick Rashad Burroughs). The charming sibling is self-effacing Nigel (Josh Grisetti, gorgeously sweet-voiced and amiable) who’s perilously in love with Portia (Autumn Hurlbert, doing the lovably ditzy Kristin Chenoweth thing), a poet-loving maiden whose closeted Puritan dad Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote, with comic timing to spare) wants to close down the Rose and all other Elizabethan theaters.

Nigel’s other challenge is Nick Bottom (Rob McClure, with sharp physical timing), his extroverted, dementedly driven brother who hates Shakespeare for all the wrong reasons. Nick’s pregnant and proto-feminist lover Bea (Maggie Lakis, belting beautifully) 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 adding songs and dancing into a play. 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. On opening night in Los Angeles, the audience went wild, stopping the show cold; that they didn’t stop sooner, I suspect, says more about releasing the angst of our times and traffic than the number itself. (It’s a shame that the rest of the show never comes close to this excitement as it gets bogged down by frivolous ridicule.)

Then there’s Will Shakespeare (Broadway sensation Adam Pascal flouncing and sashaying like a Elizabethan white version of Prince); a former player in Bottom’s ensemble whose effortless excellence (insufferably proclaimed in the Glee-like 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. (Interestingly, the show’s most shoulder-shrugging tunes belong to Shakespeare.)

According to Nostradamus’s 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 “Make an Omelette” blow-out dance number, complete with Gregg Barnes’ yolk-like costumes; because the song isn’t great, the fun number never materializes into the eleven o’clock number it promises to be.

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, cornered into a role made up of Jew jokes), 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. The rush for the creators to cook all of their eggs before they spoil becomes slightly enervating in the overly long second act.

It’s never smart for a lesser musical to remind you of so many better ones. But in “The Black Death” (a tryout song for the pre-Omelette! musical), among other derivations, Something Rotten! works overtime to fail to equal the superior silliness of Spamalot or The Producers. Given refreshingly perfect rhyming, a few melodious catches, and some truly funny lines, the lyrics are rather trifling, 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 Center Theatre Group
at the Ahmanson Theatre until December 31, 2017
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG
**tour continues until May, 2018
for dates and cities, visit Something Rotten!

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