St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 3, $37 - $177
Nearly five hundred years after William Shakespeare’s death, the author is still challenging modern dramatists around the world for theater space while influencing story lines and inspiring alternate takes on his thirty-six works. In their first stage production, brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick anachronistically take audiences back to the Renaissance in Something Rotten!, a rousing musical farce that pays tribute to the Bard and Broadway by playfully skewering both. Two-time Tony nominee Brian d’Arcy James stars as Nick Bottom, who runs a local theater troupe with his brother, Nigel (John Cariani), that can’t escape Shakespeare’s (Christian Borle) shadow. Desperate to beat the Bard at his own game — and determined to show his feminist wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff), that he can be the family’s main breadwinner — Nick takes advice from a vagrant soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), leading him to attempt the first-ever full-fledged musical, Omelette. But Nigel wants to write something more meaningful than a show about breakfast, while also becoming interested in Portia (Kate Reinders), the chaste daughter of Puritan leader Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas). Meanwhile, Shakespeare prances about like a rock star, prepared to take on all comers to his literary throne, ready, willing, and able to do whatever it takes to preserve his lofty status. “Yo! — He’s the bomb, the soul of the age / The wiz of the Elizabethan stage,” the crowd sings about Shakespeare in the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” continuing, “He’s incredible, unforgettable / He’s just so freakin’ awesome!”
Karey, who cowrote the book with British novelist and script writer John O’Farrell (the two previously collaborated on the hit animated film Chicken Run), and Wayne, with whom Karey cowrote the music and lyrics, fill Something Rotten! with an endless array of references to Shakespeare and the Great White Way, from direct quotes, character names, and Gregg Barnes’s (Follies, The Drowsy Chaperone) costumes to Scott Pask’s (The Book of Mormon, The Coast of Utopia) high-school-like painted-cardboard sets and director Casey Nicholaw’s (The Book of Mormon, Spamalot) choreography. Part of the fun of Something Rotten! is trying to recognize all the references (be on the lookout for homages to Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, A Chorus Line, The Lion King, Hair, The Book of Mormon, The Producers, Gypsy, and countless others), which also saves you from not getting too caught up in the silly plot twists and several of the numbers that are precisely what is being made fun of. “Who talks like this?” Nick asks, referring to Shakespeare’s use of Olde English and iambic pentameter. “Nigel, why can’t we just write like we speak?” Among the most effective production numbers are “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” led by Nick and Nigel (Nick: “That little turd, he / has no sense about the audience / He makes them feel so dumb / The bastard doesn’t care / that my poor ass is getting numb”) and Nick and Nostradamus’s “A Musical” (Nick: “Well, that is the stupidest thing that I have ever heard / You’re doing a play, got something to say / so you sing it? It’s absurd / Who on earth is going to sit there / while an actor breaks into song / What possible thought can the audience think / other than this is horribly — wrong?”), while “Right Hand Man” is standard fluff, and “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard” are overplayed and repetitive. But it’s all still great fun, with particularly fine turns by d’Arcy James (Shrek the Musical, Sweet Smell of Success), the Kristen Chenoweth-like Reinders (Wicked, Into the Woods), and Ashmanskas (Bullets over Broadway, Present Laughter), but Oscar (The Producers, Spamalot) steals the show as the clairvoyant bum who sums up what a musical is quite succinctly: “It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops and the plot is conveyed through song.” And in this case, it’s a celebration of the art form that will leave you giddy with delight, whether you are a lover or hater of Shakespeare — and Broadway musicals.