In a show overripe with puns, lowbrow humor, and most of all, references to just about every musical you’ve ever known, you’d think there’d be a danger of the Broadway musical comedy Something Rotten! living up to its title. Yet the packed, opening night house at ASU Gammage in Tempe lapped it up, every second of it, and with good reason. Chances are, you will too.
Set during the 16th century English Tudor period yet presented with present-day American sensibilities, including its choreography, the national touring production of Something Rotten! is a glittery, frothy concoction that has nothing to say to audiences other than sit back and enjoy yourselves. For anyone who would rather suffer the blows of a mallet to the head than read or watch another play by William Shakespeare, Something Rotten! is right up your alley.
Think of the musical as some kind of personal revenge for all those hours you had to suffer in school or college pouring through page after page of something that made no sense; plays with words spoken in the wrong order, plots where a king can’t find a horse and dies, depressing tragedies of lovers who kill themselves but didn’t really have to, and scripts you were told were comedies but try as you might, you couldn’t find a single, decent laugh. That’s pretty much how Elizabethan playwright Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) thinks of Shakespeare.
Presented as a present-day, glam-rock preening plagiarist of a playwright, Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) is the toast of London. His plays are hits, adoring crowds flock, and his competition crumbles. In this case, his principle competitors are the Bottom Brothers, Nick and Nigel (Josh Grisetti), and Nick makes no bones about his lack of goodwill towards his rival.
Framed within the production’s own proscenium arch resembling a collection of London City Tudor buildings, after a sparkling, glitzy, full cast opening, Welcome to the Renaissance, lead by a Minstrel (Nick Rashad Burroughs), Nick dives headfirst into admitting just how much he hates Shakespeare. “The way he feigns humility when all he does is gloat,” Nick sings. “The way he wears that silly, frilly collar ‘round his throat.” It’s as if writers Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrel, along with co-lyricist Wayne Kirkpatrick, had tapped into the minds of every Shakespeare loathing student forced against their will to study something they know in advance they’re going to hate.
If the show was pitched as Spamalot meets The Producers, that would be close, but there’s more. In addition to crossing Python with Mel Brooks, you could also add Benny Hill, the Carry On series, and even Forbidden Broadway. When Nick decides to take the family savings and pay a soothsayer to reveal what the next big thing in theatre is going to be, he meets Nostradamus ((Blake Hammond). He’s not actually the real Nostradamus, he’s the nephew, Thomas, but he’ s available, so he’ll do. Besides, the soothsayer next door has a sign hanging on the door that reads, “Out of business due to unforeseen circumstances.” The problem with Thomas is that while he really does have visions, he can’t always translate them properly. “Cats!” he declares when receiving a vision of theatre in the future. “A whole stage covered with singing cats!”
The one thing Thomas can tell Nick with certainty is that the future of theatre will be with something called a musical. “Wait,” states Nick. “So an actor is saying his lines and out of nowhere he just starts singing?” If at this point you’re unaware of the show’s big number that follows, A Musical, then be prepared for a genuine, unadulterated, theatrical treat. Everything you love about Broadway, every hallowed tradition – the slinky Bob Fosse moves, the clickety-clack of a large 42nd Street ensemble tap dance, and that cherished moment when dancers kick in unison in one big, wonderful line – they’re all there. And so are the musical references, everything from Annie, South Pacific, a Les Miserables joke that actually stops the showstopper, to A Chorus Line. And if it misses anything, then shows like The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King and The Sound of Music will be referenced in Act Two. And that’s not the half of it.
The thing about A Musical is that it’s hard to top. The piece is such a crowd pleaser, an overwhelming giddy delight, that on the night when you go it may possibly get its own standing ovation long before the mandatory one at the show’s conclusion. But Something Rotten! ploughs forward with its welcomed silliness regardless, never pausing to acknowledge how awful some of the showbiz puns are; it just keeps going. It’s like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In for theatregoers; if one musical reference doesn’t make you laugh, don’t worry, there’s another coming that might work better. When the soothsayer has a future vision of Shakespeare’s Danish prince, Hamlet, yet to be written, he misinterprets it as Omelette, a danish style breakfast dish, resulting with another big song and dance, the Pythonesque It’s Eggs! “What is a fiddler and why is he on the roof?” asks a cast member during rehearsal. “Because that’s where the chim-chimeneys are,” responds Nick.
There’s actually so much plot, that explaining anything further will simply bog you down with detail. Like the Oscars where popularity and box-office winners rarely walk away with awards, so it was with Something Rotten! in 2015. The show was nominated for 10 Tonys but won only one; nine Drama Desk Awards but again walked away with just the one; and twelve Outer Critics Circle Awards, winning zero. But the pleasure of seeing this brazenly featherbrained comedy has nothing to do with acknowledging awards, it’s all for the fun of it.
With an energetic cast that never quits, set changes that can at once be Shakespeare’s Globe, then the interior of Nick’s home, a London park, then the after-show party tent, all in the blink of an eye, plus several big laughs among the groans, Something Rotten! is so stuffed with… well, stuff, it almost makes The Book of Mormon appear pedestrian. And if long before the show’s conclusion you’re already exhausted and ready to go (but don’t, you’ll hate yourself in the morning) at least you saw Broadway’s funniest showstopper ever, A Musical, and that alone makes the evening worth it.
Something Rotten! continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until November 5
Pictures courtesy of Jeremy Daniel