Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Definitely Not Rotten, but Perhaps a Tad Stale

Review: Something Rotten!

Welcome to the Renaissance, or at least Something Rotten's comically askew version of it.

Will you look at that? An honest to goodness original musical has appeared at the St. James Theatre in the guise of Something Rotten, although "original" is a relative term here. While not based on any preexisting source material, this show about the fictional creation of the world's first musical is heavily influenced in structure and tone by past backstage musicals, most noticeably The Producers (with a healthy helping of Spamalot thrown in for good measure). It's an unfortunate comparison to invoke, as the misadventures of Bialystock and Bloom make for a more satisfying evening of theatre, but that doesn't stop Something Rotten from being a mostly charming confection that is one or two revisions away from real greatness.

Set in Renaissance England, this is the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom, two playwriting brothers who are struggling to attract any attention in a field dominated by everyone's favorite playwright, William "The Bard" Shakespeare. Desperate for respect and wanting to provide a better home for his family, Nick seeks the advice of a local soothsayer named Nostradamus (the cousin of the one you're thinking of), who peers into the future to give Nick the revolutionary and potentially terrible idea of adding song and dance numbers to his play. Amidst great skepticism, Nick and Nigel plunge forward with their newly created musical while trying to secure financing, avoid Puritan outrage, and prevent Shakespeare from stealing their idea and passing it off as his own.

Something Rotten is a love letter to the joyous ridiculousness of musical theatre, and your level of enjoyment will partially depend on just how versed you are in the medium's history. While anyone can appreciate the show's many sight gags and clever wordplay, Something Rotten is a show targeted squarely at the theatre kid who can identify "Big Spender" by its opening vamp and correctly recognize a single line of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. If that's you, there is a nearly endless stream of knowing winks in the book and score guaranteed to make you smile, but if you have trouble telling Annie from La Cage aux Folles then you may find yourself wondering what everyone else is laughing at. The book by Broadway neophytes Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell is great at reference-heavy metahumor, but has less success establishing meaningful character relationships or coming up with a satisfactorily plotted ending (to be fair, the latter is an area in which even well-respected classics struggle).

The score by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick freely quotes famous musicals from all eras, an amusing conceit that also robs the show of a strong musical identity of its own. Luckily, most songs are saved by the Kirkpatricks' exceedingly clever lyrics, which are filled with well-crafted rhymes while being self-aware enough to jokingly acknowledge when they resort to cheating. And with the extraordinarily talented Casey Nicholaw at the show's helm, every musical number is staged with an unabashed zaniness that makes it easy to forgive any melodic clunkiness. Nicholaw's choreography tends towards frantic here, but he has also crafted a couple of genuine showstoppers, the highlight of which is "A Musical," the extended fantasia in the middle of Act I which encapsulates nearly every iconic moment from the past 100 years of musical theatre.

The show's cast is very good, although they lack that indefinable magic that would elevate them to the level of a truly great comedic ensemble. Brian d'Arcy James leads the cast with supreme confidence and excellent timing as Nick Bottom, although it's a shame he's never truly given an opportunity to showcase his magnificent voice. John Cariani is less effective as the nebbish Nigel, partly due to his underwritten character and partly due to the actor's own unfocused - though undeniably charming - mannerisms. Brad Oscar absolutely kills as Nostradamus; he has the advantage the script's best jokes, but it is his impeccable delivery that elevates the character's wink-wink-nudge-nudge observations into side-splitting laugh lines. Heidi Blickenstaff and Kate Reinders handle their love interest roles with aplomb, and Brooks Ashmanskas is his usual hammy self in the role of self-righteous Puritan Brother Jeremiah.

And then there's Christian Borle. Borle hasn't been seen on Broadway since his Tony-winning turn as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher, and the self-indulgent William Shakespeare is the perfect role for his triumphant return. The show portrays Shakespeare as a rockstar, right down to the exceedingly tight leather pants, and Borle's primping and preening is hilariously off-putting. Not every aspect of his characterization fits in with the rest of the show - Borle's faux British accent sounds nothing like anyone else onstage - but his is such an effectively pompous performance that you're apt not to care.

Visually, the show is a treat, a stylized rendition of Elizabethan England that exaggerates select elements to perfectly navigate that delicate space between whimsical fantasy and grounded reality. Scott Pask's versatile set is intricate without being flashy, and Gregg Barnes' gorgeous period costumes have a great deal of fun with the more elaborate elements of Renaissance garb (specifically, bustles and codpieces). Everything is beautifully lit by Jeff Croiter, whose brightly colored lighting design helps keep the piece airy and fun.

Something Rotten is certainly an entertaining show, and it's easy to understand why the producers bypassed a scheduled out-of-town tryout to fast-track its Broadway premiere. That said, the show probably would have benefited from some more fine tuning, specifically in the tone department. O'Farrell and the Kirkpatricks can't decide just how raunchy they want to be, occasionally self-censoring in a way that dampens the fun. They're seemingly fine with graphic descriptions of the body's reaction to the bubonic plague, but stop just short of making the obvious sexual innuendos implied by the protagonists' surname (if you're going to write a song called "Bottom's Gonna Be on Top," you can't be afraid to really go there). Still, they get points for creating something without pre-existing source material, and the game cast and strong direction help to smooth over any weaknesses in the writing. There are certainly worse ways to spend a night in the theatre, and while the show may not always feel fresh, it is very far from rotten.

*Note: This review is based on the second preview performance. While I have tried to take into account likely improvements, depending on how many changes the creative team makes this review may not be representative of the final product*

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