Marriott’s ‘Something Rotten!’ is good, clever musical fun at old Shakespeare’s expense
“Something Rotten!,” a Pythonesque spoof of Renaissance England and shot across the bow of centuries of Shakespearian pomposity, got a bum deal on Broadway. Always beware of a title that so tempts the fates.
So it’s great to see the god of the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire give this funny thing another chance at a top-tier production, here perfectly cast by director Scott Weinstein.
Timing just was not this show’s friend. As memory serves, this witty, smart and entertaining title, wherein a bunch of Renaissance also-rans try to compete with an Elvis-like Shakespeare sucking up all of the 16th century oxygen in the room, opened in a crush of musicals in the spring of 2015. Critics were exhausted.
Worse, director Casey Nicholaw’s production, which starred Brian D’Arcy James and Christian Borle, was so relentlessly enthusiastic as to demand a level of enthusiasm that just was not in the offing that April, especially since “Something Rotten!” came at the gasping end of a self-aware chain of musicals parodying musicals, that stretched from “The Producers” to “Spamalot” to “The Drowsy Chaperone" to “Young Frankenstein” to “Shrek.” I’d argue that the best bits of “Something Rotten!” are every bit as good as any of the titles in that list and the song lyrics are consistently more sophisticated. And the show’s toe-tapping opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” is one of the great opening ditties in musical-comedy history (so don’t get there too late). But, well, “Something Rotten!” came at the end of a trend, not on the leading edge. Never ideal.
Four years on, who cares? This show, especially rewarding and amusing for people who know Broadway musicals better than their own children, is the kind of romp that allows you to switch off your brain, drink a glass of wine and let it Brexit you off for a couple of escapist hours. That’s not to imply the piece (book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick) is in any way dumb. Au contraire. John Webster, Walter Raleigh and the Puritans all make it into the lyrics, along with Shipoopi (if you have to ask, maybe not your show).
The plot here revolves around Nick Bottom (the comedically incisive KJ Hippensteel) and his brother, Nigel (Alex Goodrich), sometime scribes all wanting to take down Shakespeare (Adam Jacobs) while trying to stop the over-hyped Bard from stealing their best ideas and lines. In the central bit of nonsense, Nick visits a soothsayer (Ross Lehman in hilarious fettle) to try and learn the name of his rival’s biggest hit and then turn that into a musical to catch a new fashion. But Nostradamus gets bad reception and comes up with “Omelette.”
Once we’re in the show-within-the-show in Act 2, “Something Rotten!” sags. The problem is not unlike the one that befall the TV show “Smash,” where “Marilyn The Musical” was always a drag on the superior outer plot. But even if he can’t keep everything at the opening level, this is less bothersome in Weinstein’s production, because this director, drawing on such skilled and generous performers as Rebecca Hurd, Cassie Slater and Steven Strafford, creates so warm, genial and entertaining an atmosphere. Weinstein gets that “Something Rotten!” does not want to bite down hard with satirical teeth but merely give literate people a good time in the company of clever, creative folk.
And that’s exactly what this production delivers. I caught it the night after opening (reversed express lanes on the Kennedy Expressway for fragile Bears fans was my only something rotten on Thursday). Initially reticent, the Friday audience clearly did not know the show and needed to be won over. And I watched it happen. Fun guaranteed.