Music and Lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick
Book  by  Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell

Although it suffers from some noticeable inconsistencies, SOMETHING ROTTEN largely delivers the evening of fun that its cartoony poster promises. Some of the show’s myriad gags are fresh and clever, while others feel phoned in. But the energy of the cast remains unflaggingly consistent all throughout, and the show’s quirky plot and bouncy score compensate for its less successful beats.

The setting is Renaissance England, where struggling theater director Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James) is desperate for a hit. He and his industrious wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff) can barely make ends meet. Unfortunately for Nick, all of Europe is agog over Stratford’s new literary sensation, William Shakespeare (Christian Borle). What the bard’s rabid fans don’t realize, though, is that his best ballads are actually plagiarized. The real author is Nick’s bashful little brother Nigel (John Cariani), who has humbly sent his work to Shakespeare in the hopes of getting a few pointers. Nigel’s problems don’t stop there, though. The young poet pines for Portia (Kate Reinders), but cannot be with her as her Puritan papa (Brooks Ashmanskas) disapproves of their union. Luckily, the more Nigel suffers, the better his writing becomes. Nick recognizes his brother’s talent, and enlists his help in fashioning a theatrical event that will turn the tables and put the Bottoms on top. But what kind of show will do the trick? Nick seeks out a soothsayer (Brad Oscar), who prophesies that the biggest thing in ever in theater will be something called “musicals”. A kaleidoscopic vision follows, and Nick is hooked on this strange new medium’s possibilities. Moneylender Shylock (Gerry Vichi) gets on board and soon the rehearsals start. Of course, the process of getting a musical off the ground never did run smooth, and there are plenty of comedic catastrophes before Nick and Nigel’s revels are ended.

Librettists Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell aren’t aiming for sophisticated satire on the level of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY or THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. They’re after a more basic form of parody, which, when it works, is riotously entertaining. Just about every significant musical ever created is lampooned here, and audiences who miss the occasional reference are sure to understand scads of others. There are plenty of pop culture tropes as well: Shakespeare, replete with black leather breeches and candle-waving groupies, is the very quintessence of a rock ‘n’ roll star. Where the script goes astray is in its broader comedy beats. It’s not that the sexual double entendres and obvious puns are too vulgar (after all, the Bard himself was not above a few bawdy japes). But there are too many bits here that feel extraneous to the story and wear thin upon repetition.

Whatever the play’s shortcomings, the fault is certainly not in its stars. Borle nimbly embodies both the outward cool and inner insecurity of the charismatic Will. James radiates ambition and cunning as the consummate showman in search of a smash. They are aided by a charming supporting cast and by a design team that adds visual whimsy to the show’s cavalcade of spoofs. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps the momentum chugging along, and the strikes the right balance between irreverence and affection for the legendary balladeers and impresarios of musical theater.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

SOMETHING ROTTEN continues in an open run at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York,  New York. Tickets:

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