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Highly Recommended! Welcome to the Renaissance

Highly Recommended!

Where do these talented actors get all this energy? This production, smartly directed by Scott Weinstein and choreographed within an inch of its life by the brilliant Alex Sanchez, is absolutely slap-happy and unstoppable. If the energy of this cast could be harnessed, these actor/singer/dancers could probably generate enough power to light up all of Lincolnshire. In other words, this impressive, brilliantly cast ensemble of triple-threats is astounding. Looking as if they’re having the time of their lives, these two-dozen generously gifted ensemble members unleash so much unbridled mirth and mayhem that theatergoers will wonder when they have time to breathe. Indeed, by intermission, the audience feels as if they need a shot of oxygen, simply from laughing so much.

Several years ago, brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, had a clever idea for a musical comedy. They patched together a rough storyline and wrote a couple of clever songs and shopped it around. Ultimately they hired a topnotch Broadway director and a handful of talented actors to present the show in a 2014 workshop. The musical met with such wild acclaim that an out-of-town tryout was deemed unnecessary. Within a year, this colorful, splashy, feel-good show had opened on Broadway. The libretto, co-written by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick, now featured a full score by the Kirkpatrick brothers. It was noteworthy, not only for being uproariously and unabashedly funny, and just a little bit naughty, but it sported a score of toe-tapping tunes that overflowed with wise and witty lyrics. And, get this: the show was also completely original!

The musical spins a nimble tale about Nick and Nigel Bottom, poor, struggling sibling playwrights during the Renaissance. They continually attempt to write something that’ll draw London theatre patrons away from William Shakespeare’s mega popular productions and to their own hit dramas. After Nick learns that the subject of his latest play has just been stolen by The Bard, he desperately seeks the advice of a soothsayer. He finds Nostradamus (not that Nostradamus, but his nephew) wandering the streets and pays him for his predictions. Nick asks what theatre’s biggest money-maker will be in the future? Then he requests the title of Shakespeare’s greatest future hit of all time.

Nostradamus convinces Nick, in an enormous full-cast production number, joyfully juicy with references to other familiar classic musical comedies, that he could be responsible for writing and producing a theatrical first: “A Musical.” For anyone who knows and loves Broadway shows, this number will make them explode with glee. The song is chock-full of ingenious homages to dozens of big hit shows from the past. Donning a sailor hat, for instance, one ensemble member pays homage to “Anything Goes,” “Dames at Sea,” “On the Town,” and every other nautical-themed musical comedy. There are borrowed signature dance moves, lyrical references and melodic motifs excepted from iconic shows, like “A Chorus Line,” “Annie,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Fosse musicals, such as “Pippin,” “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago,” are parodied. Delightful references to “Oliver” (this year’s holiday musical at the Marriott) “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady” and even a nod to the Rockettes, abound.

Then, Nostradamus tells Nick that Shakespeare’s greatest hit will be a play called “Omelette.” It has something to do with breakfast, featuring ham, a Danish; and it’s about a prince, a king, his queen and a lot of other people who all die in the end. Thus, in the second act there’s another huge production number called “Make an Omelette,” with salutes to “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” Les Miserables,” “Gypsy,” various Sondheim classics and many, many other familiar shows. In short, this musical is a funny, theater-lover’s fantasy.

This Chicago area premiere is dynamically directed by that Chicago genius, Scott Weinstein. It’s energetically choreographed by one of Chicago’s finest, Alex Sanchez. They’re joined by resident musical director, Ryan T. Nelson and orchestra conductor Patti Garwood, who make this joyful score burst with life. Scott Davis’ scenic design is simple, Tudor-looking and full of tongue-in-cheek humor. The production’s costume designer, Theresa Ham has created an array of gaudy, flashy, intensely colorful Elizabethan-inspired fashions for this production. The wardrobe is a chromatic kaleidoscope of rakish ruffs and exaggerated codpieces, fabulous farthingales and boots ready for tapping. These creations are deliciously topped by Miguel A. Armstrong’s wig and hair designs, that add the perfect period flavor.

This stellar production stars Adam Jacobs, the original star of “Aladdin” on Broadway, as Will Shakespeare. While creating a perfectly punk pomposity and well-sung vocals and moves of a rock star, Jacobs demonstrates much of the same pizzazz and dazzling over-the-top essence that earned Christian Borle a Tony Award for his Broadway portrayal of The Bard. Also excellent, Cassie Slater makes her role as Bea, Nick Bottom’s hardworking wife, purely joyful. Her plaintive song, “Right Hand Man,” is vocally vibrant, delivered with pizzazz and just plain great.

However, marking his Marriott debut, handsome KJ Hippensteel is truly impressive in the leading role of Nick Bottom. He’s a young, charismatic leading man who proves he’s very comfortable taking the reins and driving every aspect of this show, with ease. Not only a wonderful singer and an excellent actor, this magnificent young fellow is a dancing fool and a choreographer’s dream. He’s joined by one of Chicago’s most gifted comic actors, Alex Goodrich, as his nerdy, poetry-penning younger brother, Nigel Bottom. Both men display finely skilled comic timing and beautifully trained voices, often blending together in such comic songs as “God, I Hate Shakespeare” and “To Thine Own Self.” Hippensteel soars in his act I finale, “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” as well as his act II musical description of his first musical, “It’s Eggs!” Goodrich lends his vocal talent, together with lovely Rebecca Hurd, as Portia, his Puritan sweetheart, to “We See the Light” and the gorgeous ballad, “I Love the Way.”

The hardworking ensemble does quadruple duty, playing actors, Shakespeare’s Backup Boys, religious fanatics, chorus guys and gals and countless other roles. They sing, act, tap and strut their way through this hilarious romp, truly making this musical sing and dance. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis is a particular highlight, opening the show as the Minstrel and leading the ensemble through that rousing ear-worm, “Welcome to the Renaissance.” Other notable actors in this production include an incredibly funny Ross Lehman, at his prime as Nostradamus; Gene Weygandt, all fire and brimstone, as prissy Puritan leader, Brother Jeremiah; Steven Strafford gets lots of laughs as ardent Jewish theatre fan and promoter, Shylock; and Terry Hamilton makes a properly persnickety Lord Clapham.

For sheer escapism and hysterical joy, this musical is more fun and festive than a trip to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. It’s filled with lusty wenches and randy men in tights. It boasts vivid color, kinetic choreography, broad comedy laced with double entendres and adult humor, and loads of homages to every musical you’ve ever seen. And it’s original—no juke box musical or rehash of a popular movie here! It’s witty and sublimely entertaining; and when’s the last time you heard a dizzy little ditty celebrating “The Black Death”?

A comedy that imagines The Bard as a fawning, self-centered rock star is funny enough; but add to this a pair of bumbling brothers trying to beat Shakespeare at his own game, and you have an exciting new entertainment for everyone. All musical theatre fans, as well as anyone looking for a couple hours of uncurbed comedy, should rush out right now for tickets to the one Fall show that’ll welcome them to the Renaissance and leave ‘em laughing in the aisles.