Thomas Burns Scully
The St. James Theatre hasn’t had a bona fide hit for a while. It isn’t all that surprising, their recent offerings have been a lot less than inspired. They haven’t had a property that wasn’t an adaptation, revival or jukebox musical in over a decade, and their last show which really ran was 2010’s ‘American Idiot’.
Since 2012 their output has been decidedly stale: a string of seemingly safe, soulless productions, beginning with a forgettable adaptation of a forgettable Steve Martin movie (‘Leap of Faith’) and culminating in a poorly-received revival of ‘Side Show’. ‘
Something Rotten’ marks a break from that. An original property, written by three relative Broadway amateurs; no pop music, no cashing in on the cache of a familiar name. It’s a bit of a risk, and the theatre’s worry that it wouldn’t fly prompted them to sell off tickets to first previews at off-off Broadway prices ($16 for a restricted view Orchestra seat, go to the box office and ask if there are still some available). I’m all for more original content on Broadway, and so I really wanted this one to work. And I’m very pleased to announce that it did. In fact, it’s bloody brilliant.
‘Something Rotten’ tells a tale set in Renaissance England, when William Shakespeare was at his peak. Essentially an old-fashioned, backstage success comedy, it follows two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who run a small theatre company that has the unenviable task of competing with Shakespeare. Unsurprisingly, they can’t match his rockstar status, despite Nigel’s excellent writing skills and Nick’s tirelessness. Losing their patronage, struggling for money, and having just had their latest idea (an adaptation of the story of Richard II) usurped by old Bill, Nick hits a point of desperation. He consults a soothsayer, called Thomas Nostradamus, to learn what the future of theatre will be. Said soothsayer informs him that musicals are what will be all the rage. Furthermore, he tells him what Shakespeare's greatest work will be: a play called ‘Omelette’ in which a Prince with a danish deals with problems of mortality, and breakfast cookery. Nick decides to steal both these ideas, and conspires with Nigel to create ‘Omelette: The Musical’. As the TV guide once said: Hilarity ensues.
Hilarity is no understatement. Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book is whipcrack sharp. Blackadder-esque anachronisms and word play abound, never letting a straight line sit on its own for long. It’s also unashamedly silly, to the point where giant eggs and omelette dance about the stage, and Shakespeare is presented as an actual rockstar, not just a figurative one. He swaggers about with the great and good, completely in love with, quoting and promoting himself ad museum.
The music is also superb. The songs of Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick are sheer, undiluted comedy. The first act’s show-stopping number ‘A Musical’ is surely on its way to becoming the stuff of legend. It is a song in which Nostradamus predicts Broadway and all of its hit shows that will follow in centuries to come, blending them and their musical styles all together in to one irresistibly funny, shamelessly over-produced song and dance number. It brought down the house, producing the first of the night’s two standing ovations. ‘Will Power’ too, in which Shakespeare sings sonnets to the strains of rock music is ludicrously enjoyable. The atmosphere produced was phenomenal; an audience in delirious appreciation, and a cast on stage matching them in ecstaticism. All the while, one got the impression that a gaggle of slightly nervous actors were collectively and joyously realizing “Oh my god, it’s working! It’s really working!” There’s nothing quite like witnessing that.
Of course, great material needs great performers, or what’s a theatre for? The cast here is pretty damn talented. Brian d’Arcy James is the show’s centre, playing Nick Bottom. James carries the play forward and sets the pace for the actors around him. His steadfast performance and seemingly unceasing perseverance form the spine of the show. John Cariani provides the play’s heart, playing the earnest and nervous writer Nigel Bottom. Cariani is of course an actual writer himself, better known for creating ‘Almost Maine’, one of the most performed plays in the country. Here he is the perfect compound of a Michael Cera nerd-do-well and an insecure Woody Allen protagonist. His geeky romance with Katie Reinder’s Portia is endlessly endearing. Christian Borle gives the show its sex appeal, playing the bard himself. A seeming hybrid of Rik Mayall and Mick Jagger, he is clearly having the most fun of the whole cast, and in a show like this, that’s saying something. They are all more than ably supported by a shockingly good ensemble, as well as character turns from the likes of Brooks Ashmanskas as Portia’s hilariously Puritanical father, and Brad Oscar’s pythonesque (read Monty) Nostradamus. Not a weak link to be found.
Despite its overwhelming positivity, the show was not without its flaws. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will say that I found the ending disappointing. Not because it was bad, but because it was merely adequate, considering the, apparently, untouchable goodness of the show’s first act. It seemed only to tie up loose ends, rather than provide real emotional satisfaction. In fact, you could say that about the second act in general. It was excellent, but not quite as good as the first half. If anything, the show peaks a little early with ‘A Musical’, it’s a shame it can’t be in the second act to even the piece out. In addition, the subplot of Nick and his marital troubles with his wife Bea feels tacked on and out of place. Heidi Blickenstaff’s undeniable talent can’t save it from feeling redundant. In other works, these would be potential show-killers, but ‘Something Rotten’ can ride out the storm. It is so much better than its own flaws, it’s almost sickening. But then any show that takes the time to ridicule Les Miz scores points with me…
So where does that leave ‘Something Rotten’? In a pretty good place, I would say. Broadway is giving shots to original properties at the moment. ‘Hand to God’, ‘Hamilton’, and ‘Something Rotten’ being the three most notable examples. It breaks up the monotony of tired revivals and star-driven sellouts. Great blockbusters are all well and good, but we don’t get new blockbusters without people taking chances. That’s what’s happening right now with ‘Something Rotten’. A show without a movie star or a film to give it undeserved credence, just good writing, talent, honed execution and an undeniable love for theatre and its wonderful stupidity. It’s this year’s ‘Gentleman’s Guide’. And it’s going to be a hit, or there’s no hope for Broadway at all.