by Cory Conley · May 5, 2015
Brad Oscar, Brian d'Arcy James | Joan Marcus
Almost exactly half of the jokes land with aplomb in Something Rotten, the highspirited love letter to Elizabethan England and musical theater now playing at the St. James. That means, of course, that the other half don’t quite make it. But this proportion turns out to be more than enough for a smashingly fun evening at the theater. The story is set in the London of the 1590’s, the center of the early modern world’s greatest achievements in government, science, and the arts. And the biggest celebrity of the time? That, of course, would be one William Shakespeare, actor and playwright extraordinaire, who has just debuted his new play Romeo and Juliet to an adoring crowd, complete with a red carpet premiere. As the “minstrels” who open the show say of the Bard: “He’s Incredible! Unforgettable! He’s just so freakin’ awesome!”
If the vocabulary there strikes you as a bit anachronistic, just you wait. Much like Monty Python and Mel Brooks did before them, the writing team behind Something Rotten delights in sending up oldschool customs with latterday winks. There’s a Puritan leader named Brother Jeremiah who condemns the theater folk with a lot of unwitting sexual imagery (“I have seen it myself and it did stiffen my resolve!”). There are protofeminist jokes about how roles in society are changing (“This is the 90’s! We’ve got a woman on the throne!”) And then there are protagonists themselves, whose family name is subject to all manner of wordplay, both literal and metaphoric: Nick and Nigel Bottom.
Nick is a struggling playwright, his career sadly overshadowed by the aforementioned Bard of StrafordonAvon, who Nick refers to as “a mediocre actor from a measly little town, and “a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can.” Nick is trying to support a wife and soontobe baby through his artistic endeavors, and can’t catch a break no matter where he turns. Alongside him is his brother Nigel, a more sensitive (and more talented) soul who is a huge devotee of the Bard and recites elegant, lovestruck sonnets to any girl who will listen. Out of career desperation, Nick consults a soothsayer named Nostradamus (not the famous one, but “his nephew, Thomas”) and learns of a future dominated by a brand new theatrical art form known as the musical.
That last plot point happens to be the show’s comic apex, presented in a glitzy production number that goodnaturedly parodies almost every major musical of the twentieth century. (Brad Oscar, as Nostradamus, shines brilliantly here.) Soon, Nick and Nigel are on their way to concocting what they imagine will be a surefire musical hit, while across town, Shakespeare devises a plan to stop them. Meanwhile, of course, there is a love subplot between Nigel and a puritan daughter, while tension increases at home with Nick and his wife.
Act two is not quite as winning, especially as the show’s structural parallels to The Producers become more obvious. (A fabulously awful production number, a trial, an escape plan, etc.) There’s something quite mechanical about the plot, and nothing about the ending will surprise you. But even when the show isn’t eliciting uncontrollable giggling fits (as it did to me more than once), there’s an air of true jubilation and love at its heart that goes a long way.
The performances are uniformly magnificent. Brian D’Arcy James is pitchperfect as the resentful but goodhearted Nick, while John Cariani fully inhabits the earnest youthfulness of Nigel. Christian Borle steals every scene he’s in as Shakespeare, while Brooks Ashmanskas brings perfect comic timing to Brother Jeremiah. Casey Nicholaw proves once again why his forceful direction is heavily in demand.
It’s true that there’s nothing revelatory about the tuneful score, by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick; or about the book, by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell. But Something Rotten is a show that needs to be taken in on its own terms, and in that sense, it’s a rightful success.