Tony-Nominated Musical ‘Something Rotten!’ Is Rousing Spoof of Shakespeare

The Tony-nominated musical “Something Rotten!” is a lighthearted jab at William Shakespeare and the times that made him. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, with music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, this is the kind of musical that will appeal to Shakespeare buffs for the in-jokes, and might inspire the layman to become reacquainted with The Bard. The show is now performing at the Ahmanson for anyone wanting to escape the confines of less fulfilling entertainment pursuits.

In a scenario that could be taken out of modern-day Hollywood, the musical’s main characters, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel Bottom ( Josh Grisetti) dream of writing a hit play but labor under the shadow of celebrity playwright William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal). Shakespeare in the world of this play is the equivalent of a Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, a King Midas of the entertainment biz. One key hurtle facing the two brothers is the fact that they have many ideas, but few real connections. Shakespeare himself has stolen quite a few ideas from Nigel’s notebook. But when Nick’s long-suffering wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) consults a soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), all signs point to future success. The two decide to try and pull it off.

“Something Rotten!” isn’t so much satire as a celebration of the underdog. Anyone who has ever made even a small attempt at breaking into the entertainment world in this town will appreciate its biting humor. Staged with wondrous, carnival colors by set designer Scott Pask and costume designer Greg Barnes, the show is a visual delight in the way it re-creates Elizabethan England as a shady but cool world intoxicated by celebrity culture. Shakespeare is written as the equivalent of a modern-day YouTube star. One hilarious number, “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” is a brazenly fun dart aimed at celebrity worship. Nick vents at the audience with acidic lines in the style of, “how a mediocre actor from a measly little town / Is suddenly the brightest jewel in England’s royal crown.” How often have we pondered such thoughts about any given hack gracing an album cover or TV show? Then again, Shakespeare, as we understand now, was no hack, but he was human, and in his own time no doubt inspired ravenous envy from contemporaries.

The main characters are loveable because they are so recognizable, especially Nick as the poet who is so talented and aloof, he can barely take care of himself. In one wickedly fun jab, a character named Shylock (Jeff Brooks), plays a moneylender hoping to one day become, of course, a producer. There is also a stern Puritan, Brother Jeremiah Scott (Scott Cote), who wishes to shut down all sinful points of entertainment in modern London. But Nigel has fallen for the Puritan’s angelic but sharp daughter, Portia (Autumn Hurlbert). Their relationship is beautifully captured in the song “To Thine Own Self,” which of course catches Shakespeare’s plagiarizing ear.

The entire show is a skillfull blend of comedy and energetic musical numbers. The humor provokes much side-splitting laughter, but the dance numbers are done with a wonderful sense of joy and craft. The opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” is an epic name-dropper with names like Christopher Marlowe and John Webster appearing in boldface. There’s a lot of phallic humor and gay jokes, but never in a naughty or mean-spirited way.

What carries the entire production to glory is the fantastic cast. McClure’s Nick is the heroic underdog while Nigel is the artist as creative klutz. Hulbert as Portia flies with a fantastic singing range. Pascal’s Shakespeare drips with decadent ego while Hammond’s Nostradamus is magnificently over the top. Material like this has to be done with much gusto or it just won’t sell. This cast makes sure we know they are reveling in this wild creation.

“Something Rotten!” is both celebration and well-intentioned hammer throw at the iconic persona of Shakespeare. The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, full of wit and vigor, seems to be saying that beneath all the pomp and glory, there are countless other talents trying to get their voices heard. Drowned by the wave of others’ successes (in the world of this play, plagiarisms), those at the bottom of the ladder need to try with all their might to climb up. But oh what fun it can be.

Something Rotten! is on a national tour through May 20, 2018. Tickets can be purchased here