It’s 1595 and something rotten is happening on the streets of London. A gent by the name of William Shakespeare is taking all the theatrical glory, while the lowly Bottom brothers are struggling to write a hit. Such is the premise for Something Rotten!, a “very new musical” with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. “Very new” might be stretching it, for the show is a virtual encyclopedia of musical theater references drawn from the Internet Broadway Database.
Director/choregrapher Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, The Book of Mormon) is a master of style and has assembled a top-notch cast that revels in the campy fun. Brian d’Arcy James (Macbeth, Next to Normal, Shrek the Musical) plays the conniving Nick Bottom, who steals the family savings unbeknownst to his wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff). He then pays Thomas Nostradamus (nephew of the famed seer hilariously interpreted by Brad Oscar) to predict what the next great hit will be. The revelation is a new form of entertainment… the musical!
Nick enlists the help of his younger brother and writing partner Nigel (John Cariani) to bring to life Nostradamus’s predictions, which are just off-kilter enough to set the stage for disaster. Meanwhile, the Bard himself (Christian Borle) goes undercover to find out what the dramatists are up to and the shenanigans escalate to Shakespearean proportions.
Filled with catchy lyrics and the occasionally hummable show tune, Something Rotten! delivers the same running gag time and time again, which is to reference past musical hits. In the Act I extravaganza, “A Musical,” Nostradamus and the hardworking ensemble unveil a tribute to Broadway production numbers, referencing everything from Evita and Annie to Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar. There is no jazz hand left unfurled or tap shoe left untied. As the Bottom brothers conceive of their own musical, Omelette, Act II reveals a similar number, “Make an Omelette,” — this time with references to Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, and so on.
True, Something Rotten! is damn funny. Mr. James plays the straight man (with a few antics of his own) to hilarious performances by Mr. Cariani as his younger brother, who could easily be a slump-shouldered hipster who just caught the L train from Williamsburg to London. Mr. Borle is mischieviously magnetic as the famed playwright William Shakespeare, but it is Brad Oscar’s scene stealing turns that channel Dock Brown from Back to the Future and Tangina from Poltergeist into a mash-up that has the audience on its feet.
Don’t think too hard about Something Rotten! — the more you do you’ll realize it’s a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes. While it touts originality, it’s really more of a glossy tribute to the musical theater tradition. Special mention should be given to illustrator Peter de Sève (New Yorker), whose whimsical illustrations for the show have been used in one of the most innovative marketing and ad campaigns in recent history.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Open ended run.