For much of the first act of Something Rotten!—the Tony-nominated musical comedy about two Renaissance-era brothers who can’t seem to escape William Shakespeare’s long shadow—our playwright protagonist Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) is down on his luck. Facing the bankruptcy of the troupe he manages with his poet brother Nigel (Josh Grisetti) and unable to provide for his wife (Maggie Lakis), Nick seeks the Next Big Thing in theatre. Enter Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), the oafish soothsayer Nick pays to foretell the box-office gold of the future. The thing, Nostradamus reveals in a flamboyant, reference-stuffed number featuring nods to everything from Les Mis to Annie to A Chorus Line, is “A Musical.” Nick’s initially incredulous, but he soon joins in on the jazz-handing. “You could go see a drama / With all of that trauma and pain,” Nostradamus sings. “Or go see something more relaxing / And less taxing on the brain.”
That last line is an apt review of Something Rotten!, a musical that piles on earnest energy where it skimps on substance. With a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, Something Rotten! is as predictable in structure as it is manic in content, a mish-mash of crude Shakespeare jokes and visual odes to the canon of Andrew Lloyd Webber. True, there are opulent costumes courtesy of Gregg Barnes and tongue-twisters to rival those of Hamilton, but there’s also the rhyming of “genius” with “penis,” a decision that doesn’t feel worth the crass setup. (There are also a few seemingly harmless Nazi jokes that do not translate well post-Charlottesville.) Thanks to composer/lyricist team Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, Something Rotten! sounds like classic Broadway, but Oklahoma! this is not.
The musical shuffles along thanks in large part to the cast’s commitment to ridiculousness. McClure sells Nick in all his exasperated, pining neuroses, grimacing “God, I Hate Shakespeare” with such ferocity that you begin to believe him. And Grisetti is well-cast as both Nick’s lanky, lovestruck foil and as the show’s romantic lead. Nick is already married to Lakis’ Bea, a character who is regrettably lacking from most of the musical save for the first act’s “Right Hand Man,” the closest Something Rotten! gets to a feminist anthem. Nigel’s crush Portia (Autumn Hurlbert, a dead ringer for Kristin Chenoweth) is bouncy and chipper with a lovely soprano to match. She’s the daughter of Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cole), a Puritan minister who has a knack for unintentional phallic humor. Even the beaming, puffy-pantsed Minstrel who opens the show (Nick Rashad Burroughs) impresses with his limited solo time.
Strangely, the national tour’s most famous name turns out to be its weakest link. Adam Pascal, of Rent superstardom, has the right gravelly sneer for Something Rotten!’s self-absorbed Shakespeare, but he’s missing that rockstar charisma. Compared to the rest of the cast, Pascal’s struts and smolders seem half-hearted and limp. He looks lost behind his eye liner, like he can’t quite believe he’s relegated to engaging in a tap dance duel instead of belting out “One Song Glory.” In contrast to the bleak world of Rent‘s Mark and Roger, the worst thing the characters in Something Rotten! have to confront is “The Black Death,” Nick’s first unfortunate foray into the musical genre. (“Soon everything that’s dangling won’t be any good for dingling” his chorus boys sing as Grim Reapers lurk in the background, scythes in hand.)
And yet, there is still something to be said for such light-hearted fare on a Tuesday night in 2018. Back in “A Musical,” Nick asks why characters bother to burst into spontaneous dance if it doesn’t further the plot or advance character.“Because it’s entertaining!” Nostradamus crows as the show’s exuberant dancers kick and twirl. Something Rotten! doesn’t risk disturbing its formulaic narrative with complex characters or important themes. Instead, it sings and dances and falls in love, serving up harmless, mindless fun.