The ensemble of “Something Rotten!” PHOTO | Joan Marcus

Broadway’s delightful ‘Something Rotten’ spoofs all things Shakespeare

By Bob Abelman

NEW YORK CITY — To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is allowing priceless copies of the Bard’s precious First Folio to go on national tour.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, actors John Heminges and Henry Condell gathered his works and published the 900-page folio, which consists of 36 plays, 18 of which — including “Twelfth Night,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Macbeth” — had never before been printed. Fewer than 750 copies were produced and only 233 survive.

Announcement of the tour has already reignited the long-standing debate about whether Shakespeare’s plays were actually penned, at least in part, by playwright Christopher Marlowe, essayist Francis Bacon, dramatist George Peele, adventurer Walter Raleigh or William Stanley, the 6th earl of Derby. The film “Anonymous,” a 2011 political thriller set in the Elizabethan court, made a convincing argument that a cultured aristocrat named Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, did most of the writing.

Broadway’s “Something Rotten!” which opened at the St. James Theatre last April, takes place in South London in 1595. It lays to rest the debate by demonstrating that Shakespeare had nary a creative bone in his body and wrote nothing that was original. Marlowe, Bacon and the others even make a cameo appearance in the opening scene before we ever set eyes on the plagiarizing Shakespeare.

This would be a bold historical statement if the musical was meant to be anything more than a romp about the Renaissance and its theater scene.

It has no such aspirations. “Something Rotten!” is an absolutely shameless spoof of all things Shakespeare and a deceptively smart but equally outrageous parody of Broadway musicals.

This should come as no surprise since it was written by Karey Kirkpatrick, who mostly wrote scripts and songs for Disney Animation, and John O’Farrell, a comic novelist in the U.K. Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey’s brother, contributed astoundingly hummable music and hilarious lyrics.

And the show is directed/choreographed with witty and reckless abandon by Casey Nicholaw, who won a 2011 Tony Award for his work on the perfectly irreverent and hugely successful “The Book of Mormon.”

“Something Rotten!” revolves around the two 16th-century Bottom brothers, the earnest Nick (typically played by Brian D’Arcy James, but the night I attended, brilliantly handled by Stacey Todd Holt) and the pathologically naive Nigel (a thoroughly endearing John Cariani), who hate Shakespeare as much for his thievery as for his rock-star reputation among adoring theatergoers.

The two underdog playwrights hire a bargain-basement soothsayer named Nostradamus (an absolutely hysterical Brad Oscar) to look into the future so they can claim Shakespeare’s most popular play as their own. Nostradamus picks up pieces and parts of “Hamlet” but also discovers an art form that will take the world by storm — the musical — in which singing and dancing replace dialogue and overpriced drinks can be purchased in a lobby. His vision provides random insights into showgirls, chorus lines and pieces and parts of various hit shows, all of which become part of their finished production, called “Omelette.”

While the first act of “Something Rotten!” supplies the huge setup for what should be a hilarious mashup musical from the vision, the second is dominated by its presentation, which is unintentionally disappointing. Fortunately, too much happens in this show to keep “Omelette” from being too much of a letdown.

For instance, we get to watch Christian Borle, who plays Shakespeare with Elvis’ physicality, Keith Richard’s ultracool demeanor and swollen sense of self, and an excessively padded codpiece. The origins of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, as manufactured for this show, are ingenious.

There’s also the wonderful Heidi Blickenstaff as Bea, Nick’s headstrong wife, the adorable Kate Reinders as Portia, Nigel’s love interest, and Brooks Ashmanskas as Portia’s father, also a closeted leader of a Puritan sect. An extraordinarily talented ensemble fills the stage with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm and Monty Pythonian/Mel Brooksian flair necessary to support such enchanting inanity.

Designers Scott Pask (scenic), Gregg Barnes (costume), Jeff Croiter (lighting) and Peter Hylenski (sound) create a Stratford-on-Avon that looks like a colorful, overstuffed pop-up book, built for sight gags and jaw-dropping production numbers.

Though New York City offers productions for every taste and temperament, “Something Rotten!” is the kind of musical theater experience one thinks of when “Broadway” starts the thought and “big, boisterous and brassy” completes it. “Something Rotten!” is a treat. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Something Rotten!”

WHERE: St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York City

WHEN: Open-ended run

TICKETS & INFO: $52-$252. Call 877-250-2929 or visit rottenbroadway.com


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 2016.

Lead photo: The ensemble of “Something Rotten!” PHOTO | Joan Marcus