New York City Theater
St. James Theater
Welcome to the Renaissance where “our mugs are made of pewter / our houses all are Tudor.” You gotta laugh, even if you also groan, at “Something Rotten,” the daffy, silly, juvenile, repetitive, disarming new musical frat show. Although time and place are listed as “1595, South London” it’s so full of self-reverential, contemporary jokes that it may as well be set not in England but New York.
The premise is as demented as “The Book of Mormon,” which it resembles (but not equals), thanks partly to the same imaginative director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw. Collaborating with librettists Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, as well as composers / lyricists / conceivers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, Nicholaw, when in doubt, turns almost every number into a group dance.
Just as well, since the story is so thin it all but peters out by the second act. The idea is the Bottom Brothers, Nick and Nigel, run a failing playhouse, a decided second to the one that employs someone named William Shakespeare, here depicted as an egotistic rockstar (“Hard to be the Bard”) not above stealing others’ ideas.
Two can play the same game. Trying to outwit their rival, the Bottom Brothers employ a soothsayer with cloudy vision named Nostradamus (nephew to the more famous guy) to predict what upcoming theatrical trends might be. How can the Bottoms turn a Shakespeare work into something new (and rotten) and come out on top? (Sorry.)
The brand-new form turns out to be a musical (“with song and dance and sweet romance / and happy endings happening by happenstance”), a hither unknown form. It helps to be thoroughly versed in other tuners, so filled is the show with homages to “A Chorus Line,” “Sweet Charity,” “Chess,” “Mary Poppins,” “Rent,” “Annie” and you name it, it’s here. (This is the meta musical at its zenith.)
It also helps if you don’t break out in hives over rhymes like, “I am the Will with the skill to thrill you with the quill.” Faced with a song titled “The Black Death” and lines like, “We’ve got a woman on the throne and by the year 1600, women will be completely equal to men,” you either let yourself go or retreat into a grumpy shell.
Admittedly, some of this gets pretty tiresome but spirits are lifted by slams at hypocritical, tumescent Puritans; orgasmic poetry and jokes that are bawdy, childish and often demented.
As Nick Bottom, Brian D’Arcy James has never been better. Charming, witty, exuberant, apprehensive and ambitious, he can also break into a mean tap dance on command. It may be the best leading man performance of the season.
Portraying his more poetic and romantic brother Nigel, John Cariani is wonderfully maladroit, while four expert comedians do their hilarious shtick: Peter Bartlett’s deliciously effeminate Lord Clapham, Brooks Ashmanskas’ over-the top Brother Jeremiah, Gerry Vichi’s impudent Shylock and, especially, Brad Oscar’s madcap Nostradamus.
Christian Borle’s Shakespeare preens like a Warwick Castle peacock, virtually bursting his ruff with self-pride. Not above purloining material, Shakespeare (“the man who put ‘I Am’ in iambic pentameter”) turns out to be a jerk who can’t resist quoting himself.
As lit by Jeff Croiter, Scott Pask’s scenic design is clever without being overly elaborate. Gregg Barnes’ costumes, with their emphasis on packed cod pieces, make their own comic statements. Nicholaw’s choreography is affable and his direction impeccable.
There’s something for everyone in “Something Rotten”: good-natured jokes about Jews, gays, prudes, the theater, sex, transvestites and, of course, Shakespeare. It’s a cheerful, often very funny show that would be just right for Harvard’s Hasty Pudding college troop (rhymes with “poop”).
--David A. Rosenberg
May 20, 2015