Something Rotten!: Theater review by David Cote
Do you still, to this day, fondly remember that 1986 Taming of the Shrew episode of Moonlighting? Whenever blue, do you stream Shakespeare in Love or Blackadder II? Elizabethan fops and wenches forming a stagewide kick line cause a little flutter under the ruff? If you said “yes” to two or more, then hie thee posthaste to the St. James Theatre, where Something Rotten! has established itself as Broadway’s funniest, splashiest, slap-happiest musical comedy in at least 400 years.
The premise of this cockamamy geeky delight—16th-century playwright brothers (Brian D'Arcy James and John Cariani) consult a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) and find themselves assembling a musical adaptation of Hamlet called Omelette!—could easily have led to a one-joke SNL sketch or addition to Harvard’s Hasty Pudding repertoire. Instead, tremendous care and showbiz savvy have gone into making a sophisticatedly silly rom-com that has it all: laugh-out-loud lyrics, catchy music, jaw-dropping sight gags and a powerhouse cast selling Bard-laced punch lines to the ecstatic balcony.
“Welcome to the Renaissance,” croons the 1595 chorus at the top of the show, “where everything is new.” Novelty and fresh starts in life are indeed the appealing keynotes, which manages to put on a song-and-dance spectacle poking fun at Merrie Olde England clichés, while also sweetly celebrating the poets, nerds and artistic underdogs.
Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book may blithely travesty history, but it espouses admirable values (poets: huzzah; puritans: boo), and the songs (by Kirkpatrick and his brother Wayne) are perfectly placed and deliver an escalating level of zaniness. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw who, after The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon, is laying claim to the crown of Broadway musical comedy, keeps it all spinning dizzily, imbuing the self-referential theatricality with sass and smarts.
And what a cast. If you didn’t already know what a smashing actor and singer Brian D’Arcy James is (he briefly stole the show earlier this year in Hamilton), here is a chance to see him carry a show with wit, fire and some impressive tap moves. Of course with an ensemble this good, the carrying is shared: Cariani squirms adorably; Blickenstaff’s radiant as Nick’s sensible wife; Brooks Ashmanskas flounces about as a closeted puritan; and Borle steals his scenes as the cocky, narcissistic, plagiarizing Shakespeare. You can bet the Swan of Avon is rolling in his grave—with laughter.
St. James Theatre (Broadway). Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell. Music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. With Brian D’Arcy James, John Cariani, Heidi Blickenstaff, Christian Borle, Brad Oscar. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote