Embrace the exclamation point. Trust it. Give yourself over to it. Something Rotten!, the intoxicating new musical at the St. James Theatre, revels in its silliness so engagingly that exclamation points are going to follow theater goers all the way home as contented ticket buyers grin that “I finally got my money’s worth” grin producers dream about but rarely muster. All this for a frivolous creampuff of a show that’s two-and-a-half hours of high-calorie dessert.
Here’s the setup: Writers Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James) and his brother Nigel (John Cariani) need to come up with a hit play or their ragtag troupe will be out of business. No one in town can compete with the local rock star Will Shakespeare (Christian Borle), who makes the ladies swoon and the men green with envy. It’s 1595 in South London. Desperate for an idea, Nick consults a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) named Nostradamus (not that Nostradamus), begging him to foresee the next big thing. A play, comes the answer, in which the actors are wont to stop dead in their tracks and sing a song. Preposterous, Nick says. Not possible!
If I tell you any more, it’ll sound flat and not nearly as original and hilarious as the heretofore-unknown team of Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell (book) and Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (songs) have concocted under the inspired, hell-for-leather staging by The Book of Mormon and Aladdin‘s Casey Nicholaw.
Something Rotten! will remind you of neither of those shows. It has more in common with Nicholaw’s earlier musicals, Spamalot (with the late Mike Nichols at the helm) and The Drowsy Chaperone. Like those shows, Something Rotten! delivers such a nonstop blitzkrieg of production numbers, each outdoing the one before, that you hardly notice how much you’ve fallen in love with the Bottom bros, not to mention Nick’s need-I-say long-suffering wife (the endearing Heidi Blickenstaff) and Nigel’s lovely love object Portia (Kate Reinders), virginal daughter of a grim Puritan (jowly Brooks Ashmanskas).
It’s entirely possible that I would have had a different reaction had not the show given us the exuberant D’Arcy James in his best role ever, a relief from the stolidness of Next To Normal and the dour cuckold he played on NBC’s Smash. Ditto Borle, also a Smash grad and beloved of some, though not me, in Peter and the Starcatcher. Indeed, I’d have scrapped the opening number, “Welcome to The Renaissance” (for one thing, it’s way too close to the opening of Hairspray), the faster to get to d’Arcy James’ first show stopper, “God I Hate Shakespeare.” And then I would make haste to get to “The Black Death” (which also comes perilously close to a predecessor from Spamalot’s big number) and “Will Power,” featuring Borle’s preening Shakespeare – where else? – in the park.
The book is jam-packed with outrageous puns, bad jokes and inside references to Shakespeare and Broadway, and in that the show is like the much-missed series Forbidden Broadway, but on steroids. Those qualities are extended in the comically whimsical settings by Scott Pask, no-subtlety-permitted lighting by Jeff Croiter and spot-on costumes by Gregg Barnes.
I may be in the minority for being a sucker for such base humor but I will say this: One surefire combination in the art of producing for Broadway is the ability to make audiences feel smart – but not outsmarted – and giddy at the same time. It’s as true for Tom Stoppard as it is for the folks behind The Book Of Mormon and Avenue Q. Anyone who can pull off jabs at Cats and Les Miz at this late hour has tapped into something, you know, not rotten! – and the best tonic I can imagine for this endless winter season.