The satirical musical “Something Rotten!” at the Marriott Theatre giveth and it taketh away. At its high spirited and creative best, when everyone is singing and dancing, the show is a glorious entertainment. Regrettably, there are scenes, especially in the second act, when plot grabs the reins from the music and choreography and the show turns into a bit of a slog. Still, audiences should leave the theater glowing with satisfaction at the abundant number of scintillating production numbers they have been immersed it.
“Something Rotten!,” which opened on Broadway in 2015, is a zany and risible satire on William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan Age in which he lived, and moving forward chronologically, to the modern musical comedy. It’s jammed with historical and theatrical in jokes, mostly expressed through the terrifically clever lyrics composed by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. The show offers a cornucopia of witty visual and verbal references to virtually every hit musical that hit the American theater in the last three generations. Musical theater trivia buffs will be in recognition heaven
The show is about 2½ anachronistic-drenched hours, the story based in the Elizabeth England of the 1590’s but in very modern terms. Nick and Nigel Bottom are brothers desperately trying to break into the London theater scene, a scene the lads feel is being unfairly dominated by a preening diva of a playwright and poet named William Shakespeare. The writers need something new and fresh to crack the Shakespearean monopoly and they eventually consult Thomas Nostradamus (the nephew of the great prophet). He envisions a new theater form that will steal Shakespeare’s thunder–the musical comedy.
That discovery leads to the song and dance number “A Musical,” a miracle of energy and wit and all-round ensemble magnificence. I stopped counting the number of shows the number embraced, but I noted “A Chorus Line,” “Sweet Charity,” “Cats,” “South Pacific,” “Annie,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and that’s just a tiny sample.
The boffo production numbers follow each other hurricane level velocity, connected by bits of plot that do not noticeably impede the fun until about a third of the way into the second act, when the show’s creators determine to get serious about matters of family and art and what really matters in life. They may all be worthy themes but they blunt the joys that have carried the audience along virtually without a break.
Until the action turns serious, the viewer rides on a wave of humor that makes cheerful use of excrement and a bigoted Puritan minister halfway out of a gay closet, among other bits that are both naughty and inoffensive.
The cast who brings all this fun to life consists of a full two dozen performers, a few familiar to area audiences but most new names, at least to me. They are one and all wonderful and my praise and appreciation especially goes out to the chorus who seem to have inexhaustible stamina and a happy, unforced stage presences that indicate they are having a wonderful time giving the audience a wonderful time.
It’s great to have Ross Lehman back on a Chicagoland stage after too long an absence, and as Thomas Nostradamus he does what Lehman does best, deliver a comic character who can sing and dance and joke and mime and altogether supply a textbook presentation of comedy at its most complete. Gene Weygandt delights as the angry Puritan minister who has comical sexual preference issues. And Terry Hamilton blusters happily in a couple of aristocratic roles.
KJ Hippensteel (Nick) and Corey Goodrich (Nigel) soar as the brothers trying to unseat Shakespeare and his diva smugness, until the storyline impedes them in the second act. Rebecca Hurd and Adam Jacobs lead the major supporting characters, but for some reason they are the only performers who assume English accents. They are both superb and their accents aren’t intrusive, but just saying.
Cassie Slater is fine as Nick’s wife, though her character gets mired in feminist issues that interrupt the hi jinks. Stephen Strafford plays Shylock in a Jewish vaudeville style that doesn’t avoid stereotype and slips in the historical fact that Jews were not much tolerated in Elizabethan England.
The behind the scenes artistic wires are pulled by director Scott Weinstein and choreographer Alex Sanchez. Weinstein’s management of the big musical scenes is simply wondrous, especially in his orchestration of so many performers within the intimate in-the-round acting space, abetted by creative use of the aisles. The show does bog now in the last act but that’s on the original creators, not the director. Sanchez’s choreography is beyond criticism in its invention, high spirits, and precision The “A Musical” number will forever lodged in my memory of truly triumphant dance moments on the live stage.
Scott Davis designed the basic all-purpose set, filled out by Sally Zak’s property designs, but the visual flair of the show resides primarily with Theresa Ham’s vast wardrobe of colorful period costumes, assisted by Miguel Armstrong’s multitude of wigs. Jesse Klug designed the atmospheric lighting and Robert E. Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood conducted the pit orchestra with professionalism and zest, as usual.
I’ve avoided describing the assorted twists and turns of the plot because the book isn’t the primary reason to attend this production. The Marriott “Something Rotten!” reaches an exalted level of entertainment by satirizing history and the Bard and musical theater in the highest of styles. If we must sit through interludes of sober plotting, that’s a small enough price to pay.