[Yes, that’s right: there are now two . . . count ’em, two . . . write-ups of Something Rotten! on ROT. ROTters who caught Kirk’s article, posted on 11 May, will know that he and I saw Something Rotten! together and each of us filed separate pieces on the play. If you haven’t read “Something Rotten! 1,” I encourage you to page down and do so, either before or after reading my report below. We don’t cover the same ground, so it won’t be like a rerun; Kirk has his own points to make (and he does it in fewer words).
[And speaking of the word count, I have to point out that once again the press coverage of Something Rotten! was so extensive that the review survey at the end of my report causes this post to go over my usual limit. The interest came from not only the fact that the play was a new Broadway musical, which always attracts the New York theater press, but it came to Broadway without try-outs somewhere else—a rarity these days—and the creative team are complete novices at making theater of any kind, let alone a Broadway musical. No theater journalist worth her or his Annie Oakleys wanted to miss this phenom. I surveyed over two dozen reviews for this report.]
Tap boots! Everyone’s heard of tap shoes, right? But tap boots? Who’da thunk it?
To be serious just for a moment—not necessarily the most appropriate sentiment in this instance (just wait)—it’s hard to figure how those chorus boys in their doublets, hose, and breeches could tap so vigorously in those high boots. But tap they do!
I guess it’s pretty obvious I’m talking about the musical mash-up of 16th-century Elizabethan life and theater and 21st-century Broadway at the St. James Theatre, Something Rotten! by the tyro playwriting team of Karey Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and John O’Farrell that opened on 22 April 2015 after starting previews on 23 March. My friend Kirk, his friend Martha, and I caught the matinee on Wednesday, 4 May (by which time, over a year later, Something Rotten! had played 429 regular performances and 32 previews). The production garnered 10 Tony nominations and nine Drama Desk nods, winning one of each for Christian Borle’s (wonderful) portrayal of Will Shakespeare. (Ghostlight Records released the original Broadway cast album of Something Rotten! in June 2015 in digital music stores and in July on CD. Something Rotten!: Vocal Selections was published by Razor & Tie Music Publishing and distributed by the Hal Leonard Corporation in October 2015.) I was reluctant to see Something Rotten!, even when my cousin invited me to join her and her husband last January—but I was laboring under a misjudgment. The production’s a hoot—and not nearly as dumb as some reviews made it out to be. (Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t high art; it’s silly and often raunchy, but loads of fun. But I’ll talk about all this in a bit.)
The play began in the 1990s as an idea of the brothers Kirkpatrick, Karey, whose principal background is in animated film, and Wayne, a country songwriter, a couple of Louisiana transplants (Karey to L.A., Wayne to Nashville). (Karey Kirkpatrick’s credits include Disney’s The Rescuers Down Under and James and the Giant Peach; Wayne’s songs have been recorded by the likes of Eric Clapton, Garth Brooks, and Bonnie Raitt, and featured in films such as Almost Famous and Phenomenon, as well as numerous television shows.) They were joined by John O’Farrell, a British comic writer known for the novels The Man Who Forgot His Wife and An Utterly Impartial History of Britain, as well as the satirical puppet show Spitting Image and Have I Got News for You, a British comic television panel show, who helped Karey Kirkpatrick, with whom O’Farrell had collaborated on DreamWorks’ Chicken Run in 2000, write the book. Karey and his brother Wayne composed the score and wrote the lyrics. Living in three different time zones, the collaborators communicated by Skype. In 2010, the trio brought several songs and a scenario to producer Kevin McCollum, a Tony-recipient for Best Musical for In the Heights (2008), Avenue Q (2004), and Rent (1996), and then linked up with director Casey Nicholaw, a 2011 Tony-winner for choreographing The Book of Mormon and a nominee for Monty Python’s Spamalot (choreography, 2005) and The Drowsy Chaperone (directing and choreography, 2006), who assembled a workshop for theatrical professionals in New York City in October 2014 with some of the actors who would remain with the show through its Broadway opening.
McCollum’s original plan for Something Rotten! was to try it out in a première at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle in April 2015, but the New York workshop generated such buzz inside the biz that when Broadway’s St. James Theatre on 44th Street west of Broadway suddenly became available when the revival of Side Show announced in December 2014 that it would close in January, the Something Rotten! producer decided to skip the Seattle roll-out and go straight to Broadway. (The last show that came to Broadway without any kind of pre-New York try-out or a successful Off-Broadway run was Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, a flop that ran only 156 regular performances in 2014. Before that, Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in 2011 without out-of-town performances and is still filling the Eugene O’Neill Theatre after over 2,000 shows.) As we’ll see, Something Rotten! got somewhat mixed notices but has become an audience pleaser and (with some caveats) a family favorite. You could say, if you’ll pardon the film reference, that Something Rotten! is a Ruby Keeler of a show. Such is life in the theater!
I’ll describe the plot of Something Rotten! in the broadest terms so as not to let too many cats out their several bags. (It’s not that the play has so many unexpected twists and turns—there aren’t really that many surprises—but if you know what’s coming, it takes a lot of the fun out of the experience.) So, here’s the set-up: As the lute-playing Minstrel (André Ward) and the company tell us in the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” it’s no longer the “dark and barbaric, . . . dull and mundane” Middle Ages—it’s “the Renaissance / Where everything is new.” (The song reminded me a lot of “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in the way it first tells us what the play’s not going to be, then boisterously celebrates what it’s all about.) The Bottom brothers, Nick (Brian d’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani), are playwrights in London in 1595. Older brother Nick, an actor with a troupe supported by Lord Clapham (Edward Hibbert), comes up with the ideas and little brother Nigel is the poet. They’re having trouble coming up with a hit play because every time they start rehearsing a promising script, they’re scooped by The Bard (Christian Borle), the toast of London, a rock star on the Elizabethan theater scene. (The troupe’s in final rehearsals for Nigel’s Richard II, uttering lines that sound an awful lot like you-know-who’s R2, when Clapham rushes in with a playbill announcing that Shakespeare’s company is opening his version that very day. “Why is he doing Richard II?” cries an anguished Nick. “He’s just done Richard III! Who goes backwards?”) So to foil rival Will, Nick decides to suss out, first, what “the next big thing in theater” will be—and it turns out to be (can you guess?) . . . “A Musical” (A musical / And nothing’s as amazing as / A musical . . .! Sorry. I went away for a bit but I’m back now). Then he endeavors to discover what Shakespeare’s biggest hit will be, and he and Nigel set about writing this thing called a musical (Stupidest thing that I have ever heard / You’re doing a play, got something to say / So you sing it? It’s absurd!) on what Nick thinks is his archrival’s most successful idea. (He gets this part a little bit wrong.) And, as the saying goes, bedlam ensues.
Along the way to the play’s dénouement, the stage is filled with clever songs, spirited dancing (those tap boots), hijinks, double entendres (not too subtly emphasized), skullduggery, disguises, cross-dressing (an actor in Nick’s company named Robin, played by Eric Giancola, who obviously plays the female roles in the all-male Elizabethan troupe, has been dressing as a woman and going to taverns to flirt with men . . . as “research,” he explains), and assorted other antics and tomfoolery. It’s inspired madness, sending up nearly everything and the kitchen sink: feminism and women’s rights, the theater—especially the musical theater (Wikipedia lists 39 musicals to which Something Rotten! makes reference)—pop stardom, religion and fanaticism, poetry, and Shakespeare his own self. (There are at least 10 Shakespearean works to which the play makes reference, for instance, and many of the characters’ names in Something Rotten! are from Shakespeare’s plays. Nick Bottom is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream—he’s the guy who ends up with a donkey’s head and this Nick even says to Shakespeare in Rotten, “You will not make an ass of me”—as are Francis Flute, Peter Quince, Tom Snout, and Snug—all the Rude Mechanicals, who, you’ll recall if you’ve brushed up your Shakespeare, put on a play in Midsummer. Shylock, from The Merchant of Venice, is a theater-mad Jewish moneylender who wants to invest in Nick’s plays and the girl Nigel falls in love with is Portia, also, most likely, from Merchant—rather than Brutus’ wife from Julius Caesar; Nick’s wife is Bea, certainly from Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing. You’ll also meet Yorick, not actually a character in Hamlet because he’s just a skull, and Robin, Puck’s alternate name in Midsummer. Shakespeare disguises himself as an actor from York looking for work in Nick Bottom’s troupe—”I like this new York actor,” says Nick—named Toby Belch, taken from Twelfth Night.) There are anachronisms, misunderstandings, and subplots galore, all of which fly by at lightening speed. (Kirk was actually seeing Something Rotten! for his second time because he wanted “to be confident that I’ve seen most of what’s going on in it” before finalizing his own article on the play.)
I found the Kirkpatricks’ music suitably bouncy and spirited, striking just the right note (if you will) for the light-hearted comedy of Something Rotten!; there was no attempt to replicate Elizabethan music so the incongruity of Renaissance-clad folks doing old-timey Broadway songs and dances was all part of the fun. The brothers’ lyrics—is this the first team of brothers to do a Broadway score since the Gershwins?—were clever without being smart-ass; I never got the sense they were showing off, just having a high old time. (I can imagine the boys—they’d have been in their 30’s back in the ’90s when they first had this idea—sitting somewhere over a coupla beers one night shooting jokes, lines, and lyrics at each other and just laughing their asses off. I can remember doing just that with some ridiculous idea back in high school and college—but I never followed through on the brainstorm.) And since Something Rotten! is a play about musicals, each song reveals character (Nick’s “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” Nigel’s “To Thine Own Self,” Shakespeare’s “Hard to Be the Bard”) or expands the moment (“A Musical,” “We See the Light”), just as it should.
Now, let me say a couple of other things about Something Rotten! before I get into my assessment. First, the humor is very broad and about a millimeter deep. Something Rotten! has no more on its silly little mind than having a rip-roaring good time at the expense of the theater’s most revered figure. The concept of Something Rotten! strikes me as the kind of thing some very clever, smart-ass undergrads would come up with—maybe theater majors—but the execution (including the writing, composing, and staging—not to mention the casting) was at a much loftier level. (It’s analogous to Alfred Jarry taking his classmates’ prep school sketch making puerile fun of one of their teachers and turning it into the biting satire of Ubu Roi, on which I reported back on 27 August 2015.) This isn’t a criticism, you understand; it’s what the Kirkpatricks, O’Farrell, and Nicholaw wanted from the start. And furthermore, it works like gangbusters . . . or maybe that should be gutbusters. (I used to argue with my grad-student classmates that there’s nothing wrong with theater that aims at no more than entertainment. Making people laugh is a laudable and worthy goal. Every evening in the theater doesn’t have to be Chekhov, Ibsen, or Brecht—or even Sondheim or Rogers and Hammerstein. Aristophanes, Menander, Terence, and Plautus are classic playwrights, too, after all.)
Second, the play may not have much of a brain, but it does have a heart. Something Rotten! has two principal themes, the first of which is newness. Not just in the theater of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker and the other writers who’re introduced in the opening number, but life itself. Nick’s wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff), wants to be her husband’s equal partner, get a real job outside the home, be Nick’s “Right Hand Man.” When Nick loses his company’s patron, he finds an untraditional way to finance his new kind of theater by bringing in an investor who “produces the money for the show to be produced” . . . though Nick doesn’t know what to call this guy yet. Of course, these are all anachronisms, but that’s the point. The second theme is the more heart-felt: “To thine own self be true.” When Nigel becomes disillusioned with his brother’s borrowed idea for their new show, he decides that he must write a play that shows how he feels about things, that reveals his inner self. And then, when he falls in love with Portia (Kate Reinders), the daughter of Brother Jeremiah (David Beach), the Puritan leader, and Nick warns him that it’s a dangerously bad idea, the love-struck boy persists because it feels right for him. Portia, in her turn, disobeys her stiff-necked father for the same reason. (Portia and Nigel are, of course, star-crossed lovers just like Romeo and Juliet, but without the tragic ending.) This is the closest thing Something Rotten! has to a moral point.
Before I single out the leads of Something Rotten! for special notice, let me state that the entire ensemble makes this piece run like a well-designed Rube Goldberg contraption. Some of the cast I saw were replacements for the original actors of 2015, but no matter who replaces whom, Something Rotten! spins like a top because of the amazing coordination of the whole company, leads, featured actors, and chorus. And, of course, that’s to the credit of director Nicholaw and (for the replacements and understudies) the production stage manager, Charles Underhill, who’s kept the show tuned up since it opened.
There’s no way to catalogue all the terrific bits of comedy this cast pulls off, so I’ll just make general comments, starting with André Ward since his Minstrel starts the play off. Ward’s role is somewhat like the Ben Vereen character in Pippin, the Leading Player, a kind of guide-cum-master of ceremonies, and Ward both exudes the right personality and commands the right vocal quality to make it shine. Ward’s Minstrel is vivacious and commanding at the same time, in charge but charming and joyful, as if he not only wants us to have a great time, but he’s having fun himself. He has a strong, clear tenor and huge smile that lights up the house, unmistakably setting the tone for the performance.
James does a kind of post-adolescent wannabe as Nick, the kid who’s always been one-upped by the popular guy at school. His “God, I Hate Shakespeare” cuts just the right note of jealousy, esteem, and contempt that the football team manager builds up after four years of having the star quarterback throw him his wet towel every day. James manages to show us how he’s finally driven to extremes while avoiding turning Nick into . . . well, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, the role played by Herbert Lom in The Return of the Pink Panther. If Nick’s a post-adolescent schemer, John Cariani’s brother Nigel is a sensitive late adolescent, all gangly and tongue-tied boy-man—even his vocal quality is teeny-bopperish (think Horshack from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, but with brains and a vulnerable heart). In other hands, Nigel’s scenes with Portia, the Puritan girl he falls for, would be painful to watch (not to mention clichéd)—but Cariani keeps them in the realm of warm-hearted comedy and I rooted for him to get it right finally.
As Portia, the daughter of the censorious Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, who scorns all frivolity but especially theater, Kate Reinders is the family-show version of the proverbial preacher’s daughter—with Kristin Chenoweth’s hair and voice. Like many of the characters in Something Rotten!, Portia verges on cliché and stereotype, but Reinders makes her endearing and funny. And like Reinders’s Portia, Heidi Blickenstaff’s Bea breaks the convention of the Elizabethan female, depicting an independent woman, the equal partner of her husband, Nick (who doesn’t really see it), demanding a place of her own in the world (even if it is shoveling bear shit while disguised, in a frequent Shakespearean tactic, as a boy). I found her singing a little nasally, but Blickenstaff’s acting had just enough 21st-century contemporaneity to make Bea a prototype of a modern woman—what Kate of The Taming of the Shrew might be if anyone would let her.
In a move not uncommon in theater or literature, the flashiest role goes to the antagonist. In the case of Something Rotten!, that’s William Shakespeare, of course, the guy who’s been stealing the Bottoms’ fire and lording his success over them like the cock o’ the walk. He’s written as a rock star, and that’s how Christian Borle plays him—he’s the Elizabethan Conrad Birdie, he’s the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, the Prince of Pop, and the Artist Formerly Known As Prince all rolled into one (with more than a touch of Mick Jagger stirred in). In an appearance to read his sonnets in Shakespeare in the Park (literally, in this case—Joe Papp is probably spinning in his grave with glee), Borle nearly literally bestrides the stage like a Colossus in an outfit that looks almost as if it could have been inspired by Elvis’s Las Vegas Collection. (There was more than a hint of Michael Jackson in Borle’s “Will Power” gig—he has a macho quartet of Backup Boys: Aleks Pevec, Eric Sciotto, Ryan Vandenboom, and Bud Weber, all five men clad in leather—and for a moment I thought he was going to do a Prince homage, but it’s probably too soon to put that up yet.) I saw Borle as Prior Walter in the Signature Theatre Company’s first-rate revival of Angels in America (see my report on 11 December 2010) in which he was excellent, and in the 2012 TV show about making a musical, Smash, in which he was far better as the fictional songwriter-lyricist than the series was as a whole, but his Tony-winning work in Something Rotten! takes second place to neither of them. (The versatile actor also has a 2012 Tony for Peter and the Starcatcher, but I didn’t see that.) Borle’s Shakespeare unquestionably takes all the world as his stage; he struts and occasionally frets, but he’s definitely no poor player. (In his article on Something Rotten!, Kirk called Borle “a dazzling, multi-talented actor,” and he ain’t half wrong!)
I’d like to name all the players, like David Beach’s Brother Jeremiah, the sternly disapproving Puritan leader with with a predilection for inappropriate double entendres; the Nostradamus, the befuddled soothsayer, of Brad Oscar, who suffers from psychic astigmatism; and Edward Hibbert as the Bottoms’ finicky patron, Lord Clapham, but the list would just be too long. Accept my word that each performer does her- or himself and the production proud.
I’ve already noted that the successful ensemble work of the cast is down to director Nicholaw, but he began work on Something Rotten! in its earliest days, right after the writer-composers began to create the script out of the Kirkpatricks’ idea. In addition to the successful 2014 workshop, I’m guessing that Nicholaw also had a hand in creating the look and flow of the play, neither the Kirkpatricks nor O’Farrell having theater experience on which to draw. If that’s right, then Nicholaw advised his partners well, for they made the most of the basically silly idea with which they started. Something Rotten! paces along at a nice clip, rapid enough for the jokes to come relatively fast (fast enough for Kirk to need to see the show twice, after all), but not so fast that the plot speeds by and the characters don’t have a chance to reveal themselves to us and for the little domestic dramedy of Nick and Bea and the romance of Nigel and Portia to unfold sweetly. In addition, Nicholaw, who choreographed the show as well, created dances that fit the tone of the show and the score perfectly: spritely, energetic, and high-spirited—and let’s not forget those booted tap-dancers!
The physical production of Something Rotten! is commensurate with the performing and directing, which is probably unsurprising. (There’s one regional theater that’s sent shows to Broadway that has a rep for doing cheap-jack productions—costumes from Rubie’s House of Costumes, props from Gordon’s Novelties, that sort of look—but it was an outlier.) Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Peter Hylenski’s sound are both wonderful enhancers of the atmosphere Nicholaw and his design team have created for the St. James stage. The fairytale—although only minimally exaggerated—Elizabethan dress created by Gregg Barnes magically evokes the “petticoats and Farthingales” and the “puffy pants and pointy leather boots” of the period in vivid hues (which, of course, the natural dyes of the day wouldn’t have been able to render—but what the hey: It’s . . . a . . . musical!). The most striking visual aspect of the production, however, is Scott Pask’s set, which works a little like, not a pop-up book but a fold-out. The buildings that line the Tudor street that is the central setting of Something Rotten!, including a theater that looks an awful lot like Shakespeare’s Globe, the modern reconstruction of the 16th-century original in London’s Southwark (which is where the play is set—the theater district of the day), open up to reveal interiors with the characters who dwell or work there—the extended Bottom family in their little house, the actors of Nick’s troupe rehearsing in the “wooden O.” Altogether, the look of this show is endlessly charming and delightful. I can’t actually say Something Rotten! would be as much fun without the acting, dancing, singing, and storytelling—but it might come close.
According to the website Show-Score, Something Rotten! achieved an average score of 81 with 93% positive notices and a lowly 7% negative; there were no mixed reviews in Show-Score’s survey. Among the most negative reviews was Ben Brantley’s in the New York Times, which asserted that the musical “dances dangerously on the line between tireless and tedious, and winds up collapsing into the second camp,” explaining, “Unchecked enthusiasm is not always an asset in musical comedy.” “‘Sophomoric’ is the right adjective for ‘Something Rotten!,’” pronounced the Timesman, a show which “wallows in the puerile puns, giggly double-entendres, lip-smacking bad taste and goofy pastiche numbers often found in college revues.” While heaping other disparaging remarks on Something Rotten!, Brantley quipped, “Sometimes you wonder if the show isn’t made up of scenes culled from the wastebaskets of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ staff.” Nor does the Times reviewer neglect the production, calling the set “deliberately kitschy” and declared that the cast “in this Broadway-does-the-Renaissance frolic remain as wired as Adderall-popping sophomores during exam week.” In the end, Brantley summed up the show as “both too much and not enough.”
On the other side of the ledger, the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli, christening Something Rotten! a “Broadway hit” and even “a blockbuster” the day after it opened, described it as “a deliriously entertaining new musical comedy that is devilishly clever under its goofy exterior.” Furthermore, she endowed the production with “a kind of white-hot energy: Everything from story to song clicks into place, the actors are firing on all cylinders—and the audience knows it’s watching something special.” While the Times found little in the combination of the Bard and Broadway but fodder for the creators’ canons, Vincentelli saw that “the show is a love letter to both Shakespeare and musicals”; whereas Brantley complained that the cast performed “what is essentially the same determined showstopper again and again,” the Post’s review-writer saw that aside from “A Musical,” Something Rotten! “boasts two more showstoppers.” Though Vincentelli judged the dancing was “fairly banal,” she felt director-choreographer Nicholaw “sets a breakneck speed that never falters.” The two reviewers even disagreed over a principal cast member: James, according to Brantley, “wasn’t meant to play a sad sack like Nick. Though he works hard, the character eludes his grasp,” but Vincentelli reported, “James exerts himself into sheer lunacy—Nick is a striver following his dream, no matter how nutty it is.” Both writers came down on the same side with respect to Borle, though the Times reviewer provided a rather back-handed compliment (the actor “brings his well-polished panoply of comic tics, winks and flourishes to his portrayal of Shakespeare”) while the Post theater journalist declared unequivocally that Borle “gives the performance of his career.” Vincentelli’s only reservation, predicting the play would run “for years,” was “how the heck are they going to replace those people down the line?”
In amNewYork, Matt Windman opened his review with “No—it’s not rotten. In fact, it’s completely fresh” and described the musical “as ‘Shakespeare in Love’ meets ‘Spamalot.’” He’s somewhat cool on the outcome, though: “With all its showmanship and silliness, ‘Something Rotten!’ begins on an extremely promising note, sustains it throughout act one, and then falters in act two,” resulting, nonetheless, in “a great deal of cartoonish fun.” The cast of “music theater veterans . . . deliver larger-than-life performances” and Borle “is especially hilarious.” “The supremely silly ‘Something Rotten!’ is the musical love child of ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and ‘Forbidden Broadway,’” affirmed Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News, so it “has some darn fine DNA” with “a terrific core idea.” Something Rotten! has a “breezy, hummable score that goes down easy from the start” and a “book, which, fittingly, reminds us that all the world’s a stage—and all that’s on it is up for grabs at any time, past, present or future.” Nicholaw’s “staging . . . is consistently fun” and the “production that looks like more than a million bucks” is “mouthwatering,” with sets that “bespeak Tongue-In-Cheek Tudor” and costumes that “ooze wit and period-rich pizzazz,” all “bathed” with “warm light.” Added Dziemianowicz, “The cast is another big plus.”
“‘Something Rotten!’ arrives on Broadway with Hit! plastered all over it,” announced Linda Winer in Long Island’s Newsday, “and I am not here to doubt it.” Her “Bottom Line” is: “Frenetic, spoofy crowd pleaser.” Winer does complain, however, that “the show’s good-natured silly charms just feel hammered by an unrelenting tsunami of manic, frenetic, zanier-than-zaniest onslaught of collegiate show-biz humor.” Describing Something Rotten! as “determined to make breathless (but, alas, not particularly fresh) reference to just about every musical of the last 70 years and every Shakespeare play,” Winer still found Barnes’s costumes “sweet” and Pask’s scenery “cartoony.” The music is “jolly, jingle-driven,” the lyrics are “low-comedy,” and the showstoppers “are insane musical numbers in which the chorus fast-forwards with nonstop snatches from the future of musicals.” Terry Teachout posited in the Wall Street Journal that Something Rotten!’s premise is suitable “for an old-fashioned variety-show sketch of the sort that [Mel] Brooks used to write for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, but Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick have blown it up to 2½ . . . hours by inserting 15 mostly comic songs, none of whose lyrics are sharp enough to penetrate their targets.” Teachout complimented the cast as “resolutely lively” and reported that Nicholaw “has staged ‘Something Rotten!’ with enough punch to partially conceal the thinness of the material.” In the end, however, the WSJ reviewer concluded that “this one’s for backward sophomores only.”
Elysa Gardner of USA Today, awarding Something Rotten! three out of four stars, wrote that although “a couple of production numbers have mostly good-natured fun alluding to a parade of favorites, . . . it’s pretty safe to assume that Rotten! will not join the ranks of the iconic shows it references any time soon.” Gardner retrenched a bit, though: “Happily, the director/choreographer is Casey Nicholaw, whose distinctly joyful irreverence . . . is just what’s needed here.” The upshot is “a briskly entertaining, though ultimately forgettable, ride,” largely due to “talented players.” In the final analysis, Gardner reported that “you’ll find plenty that’s amusing, if little that’s memorable.”
In the Financial Times, Brendan Lemon lamented that Something Rotten! is an “initially delightful, eventually repetitive Broadway extravaganza” by the end of which, “you too may feel a slight impatience not only with Shakespeare but with the entire musical theatre genre.” Asserting that the play “melds the backstage chaos of The Producers with the Merrie Olde England nonsense of Spamalot,” Lemon reported that the “show-queen jokiness is showcased brilliantly” in “A Musical,” but “[f]rom that point, the relentless insider winking becomes increasingly less gay (old-fashioned definition) and the jokes, inevitable with brothers called Bottom, become increasingly more gay (modern meaning).” Except for Nigel and Portia’s ballad “I Love The Way,” FT’s review-writer contended, “the clever lyrics yet synthetic music of the other songs” lacked “melodic heart.” Alexis Soloski recommended, “If you’ve ever longed to see the Bard of Avon shaking his ass,” you should catch Something Rotten!, which she dubbed in the Guardian a “mildly amusing and oddly anodyne new musical comedy.” Soloski reported, “Something Rotten! goes over easy. Too easy. The songs are catchy, but quickly digested” and the “book . . . and lyrics settle for the undemanding laugh and usually get it.” The cast is “excellent,” though, and Nicholaw “directs in his usual pert and perky fashion, and the choreography is reasonably entertaining.” The show, posited Soloski, “wants to be uncouth and impertinent . . . but it’s much too nice.” The Guardian reviewer continued, “It’s softly vulgar— . . . but it settles for sweet when it ought to be scurrilous, comfortable when it ought to be really clever.” She concluded that “it’s hard not to wish that the show’s creators had . . . set the bar and the flame just a little higher,” but in the end, “It’s never offensive, but it’s never very exciting either.”
After New York magazine’s Jesse Green made the point that all “musical comedies today are usually about musical comedies,” he observed that “a few savants, including the director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw . . . are still able to pull off the trick.” The director’s “genius for reducing an audience to helpless giggles is on blazing display in Something Rotten!—a new show so steeped in the tradition that it often seems like a concordance,” declared Green. The man from New York continued, “Anything you’ve ever liked in a musical comedy (and a few things you haven’t) are here, just waiting to sing-and-dance you into submission.” “It’s total silliness,” declared Green, but “Nicholaw keeps the lights bright, the sound loud, and the plot moving at a furious boil.” “None of this would matter,” noted the New York reviewer, “if Nicholaw had not cast the show impeccably,” asserting further that the leading players “are the kind of comic actors who make even piffle full-bodied.” The song lyrics contain “a dozen smart lyrical jokes, nicely set on tunes that do only as much as they need to in order to keep the momentum going” and the book “also plays both low and high.” In a huge compliment to the show’s creators, Green stated: “In all these ways, Something Rotten! mimics the achievement of Shakespeare himself—not, obviously, in the deathlessness of its poetry and insight but in its binding of disparate potential audiences and tastes into one, at least for a few hours.” In the end, Green admitted that “if I could wish for any improvement in Something Rotten! it would be to relax a bit more, so we could. It’s hard work enjoying a show this much.” In the New Yorker, the “Goings On About Town” columnist wrote bluntly that “this new musical—original, nonderivative, and cast with Broadway powerhouses instead of celebrities—is singable, high-spirited fun.” The “production is a fizzy entertainment that gives audiences exactly [what] they want,” but the anonymous reviewer lamented, “With just a bit more insight, the show could have been brilliant satire, shining a light on our own enlightened age.”
The New York Observer’s Rex Reed seems to agree with me on one point: “Sometimes it’s O.K. to go to the theater just to have fun,” he declared. The Observinator crowned Something Rotten! as “the palmy, outrageous new lampoon of Hamlet that has hit Broadway like a ton of meringue in the face of cynicism. It’s the most hilarious romp since The Book of Mormon, only better.” In fact, Reed copped out: “It is simply pointless to dissect this insanity any further than to tell you it rhymes Tudor with ‘pewter.’” (He even confessed, “I don’t know when I laughed so hard that I almost blew off a dentist’s cap.” The dentist must have been sitting in front of Reed—but I don’t know why he had his cap on in the theater.) The musical, pointed out the Observer reviewer, “involves a seemingly endless jumble of characters” and “elevates clichés above and beyond the call of hilarity”; “the songs are catchy and melodic for a change, and Something Rotten! will leave you screaming for more.” Reed’s final assessment: “This is a show brimming over with cleverness and nothing on its mind but entertainment, which it delivers not only in spades—but in hearts, clubs and diamonds, too.” And the review-writer himself? “I have never had a better time on Broadway.” (Is there higher praise than that?) Dubbing the play a “shamelessly silly parody of Broadway musicals—and outrageous spoof of all things Shakespeare” in Variety, Marilyn Stasio pronounced Something Rotten! “a deliriously funny show” that’s “irresistible” in its “synthesis of highbrow/lowbrow humor,” even if “comic desperation descends on the second act.” Stasio complained that “there’s entirely too much [plot] in the messy second act. But by that time,” she acknowledged, “the show is steaming ahead, fueled by the bold-as-brass music, the ingenious lyrics and the sheer lunacy of the whole enterprise.”
David Cote of Time Out New York, calling Something Rotten! “Broadway’s funniest, splashiest, slap-happiest musical comedy in at least 400 years” and a “cockamamy geeky delight,” determined that “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.” The play, the man from TONY reported, “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.” The book “may blithely travesty history, but it espouses admirable values (poets: huzzah; puritans: boo), and the songs . . . are perfectly placed and deliver an escalating level of zaniness” while director Nicholaw “keeps it all spinning dizzily, imbuing the self-referential theatricality with sass and smarts.” Entertainment Weekly’s Clark Collis dubbed Something Rotten! a “rambunctious, song-stuffed confection,” but complained that “the many . . . jokes and numbers invoking the lunacy of musicals do become a little repetitive.” What saves the production, though, “is the evident fun being had by the cast.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney dubbed Something Rotten! a “rambunctious comedy” and his “Bottom Line” was, “Smells like a hit, a very palpable hit” (in a parody of a line from—what else—Hamlet). “This is a big, brash meta-musical,” explained Rooney, “studiously fashioned in the mold of Monty Python’s Spamalot, The Producers and The Book of Mormon, loaded with crowd-pleasing showstoppers, deliciously puerile gags and an infectious love of the form it so playfully skewers.” Director-choreographer Nicholaw “can spin froth into a full-bodied confection, even if this one cries out for something more substantial at the finish,” and even if the songs “are standard-issue show-tunes, they are elevated by dynamic staging and performances.” Barnes’s costumes “are witty and eye-catching,” though Shakespeare’s “glam-rock peacock finery . . . is his masterstroke”; Pask’s scenery is “cartoonish” with “sets that look like pop-up Tudor storybooks”; and it’s all “drenched in vibrant shades” by Croiter’s lighting.” “The late-action plotting could be sharper,” the HR reviewer lamented; however, the show’s creators and director “run so far with it that resistance is futile.” Despite the weaker second half, Rooney asserted, “the show is clever enough in its impish desecration of highfalutin history to make it a very agreeable lark.”
Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press, referring to Something Rotten! as “a little nutty,” reported, “The mighty St. James Theatre, where Helen Hayes herself starred in ‘Twelfth Night’ and Maurice Evans played ‘Hamlet,’ has never seen anything like it. You can feel the cobwebs being blown away.” “‘Something Rotten!’ . . . is fresh and hysterical and irreverent,” declared Kennedy. “It’s easily the funniest thing to arrive on Broadway since ‘The Book of Mormon.’” Director Nicholaw is “at his exuberant, daffy best,” Pask’s set “resembles interlocking gingerbread houses,” and Barnes’s costumes are “rich and colorful.” If a “stunningly good first act . . . invariably leads to a somewhat weaker second act,” the AP reviewer wrote, “. . . that’s still better than most entire musicals on Broadway right now.” Kennedy’s last words? “It’s awesome.” On WNBC, the network-owned New York TV channel, Robert Kahn called the production an “easygoing effort” that “delivers . . . accessible and over-the-top laughs” whose “generous sampling of Shakespearean conventions helps elevate an otherwise-thin and double entendre-laden plot.” Kahn’s overall judgment was, “This new musical makes us do just enough work that we feel satisfied for picking up on them,” and he recommended, “Go for the production numbers and the big-hearted turns from the leads, whose enthusiasm ultimately proves even more infectious than the plague.” On NY1, the cable news channel for Time Warner subscribers in New York, Roma Torre announced, “There is absolutely nothing rotten about the new musical ‘Something Rotten!’ In fact, I smell a hit.” Torre warned that “nothing is sacred and everything is funny!” in Something Rotten! which “has been fine-tuned to gleeful ecstasy” so that “no laugh is left unturned.” The NY1 reviewer summed up, “‘Something Rotten’ is red meat for theatre lovers—it’s clever, bodaciously funny, ridiculously tuneful; and even if Act II feels a bit overdone, audiences are sure to eat it up.”
On the Huffington Post, Steven Suskin predicted Something Rotten! “smells like a hit” and warned that it’s “larded with overripe performances, layer upon layer of schmaltz, and everything in the kitchen sink except a battle of flying cream pies.” But Suskin added a caveat: “Something Rotten! hits the target again and again, but as the evening progresses they serve up fewer and fewer bull’s eyes.” The HP blogger continued: “But you also might wonder: won’t they run into trouble when they run out of Shakespearean twists [and] musical comedy references . . .?” He reported that that’s what happens as “the show loses its freshness” in the second half, even though director Nicholaw “does a protean job” with his “sharply-etched comedy blocking, his high-powered musical comedy dancing, and a talented cast of comic actors.” Though “heavy on double entendres, to the point of diminishing returns,” Suskin asserted, “Something Rotten! is a very funny show indeed.” He admitted, however, that he “eventually had too much”: “I laughed a lot, yes; but it’s like being served a sumptuously stocked breakfast buffet . . . for dinner. Tasty, filling, and if you partake of the all-you-can-drink Mimosas, bubbly. But not quite so satisfying as steak & potatoes.” Over a year later (just before Kirk and I saw the play), HP ran another notice, in which Danny Groner reported, “I’ve never seen a Broadway audience as raucous in a completely rational and organized way as during a couple spots during Something Rotten!,” due to the jokes at the expense of Shakespeare, musical comedy, and the “audiences who comes out to see one or both.” Groner mused, “If you’re one of the lucky ones who falls into both camps, then your laughs were likely twice as loud.” “It’s strange and convoluted at times,” added HP blogger #2, “but on the whole the show delivers on its promise of a wondrous and unexpected looniness” and the director “gives the show several extra layers of magic.” He quibbled, “That doesn’t mean the show is perfect in every way. You have to learn to forgive a sloppy second act that feels repetitive to the first one.” In the end, Groner acknowledged, “Nevertheless, the show stays true to itself.”
TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart, calling the play a “fanciful story,” caviled that “Something Rotten! doesn’t quite reach the game-changing heights of that blockbuster musical [The Book of Mormon], but it will give you two and a half hours of hearty laughs,” packed as it is “with jokes and glitzy tap numbers.” Stewart felt that “the fact that the show is able to maintain its high level of lunacy without falling into a disappointing rut in the second act is a testament to Nicholaw, his cast, and his creative team.” He reported, “There’s not a bad performance here,” and concluded, “The end result is an irreverent fairy tale of the Atlantic divide in our theater, in which musical blockbusters all seem to come from Broadway and serious dramas originate in the West End.” Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide wrote that Something Rotten! “is entertaining, which is one reason you don’t notice that nothing much is actually happening,” while the “music is snappy, and the musical jokes . . . never stop coming until the musical within the musical falls on its face.” McCall reported, “The first act ends with a hopeful production number,” but then in the second act, “everything topples over.” Nonetheless, “the production values are superb” for “a big splashy puffball of a musical that has been way over-thought, over written and over-worked.” She summed up, “There is not room for one more note, one more reference to a Broadway musical, one more historical factoid, one more nod to Shakespeare, one more word or gesture or even breath. We waddle out of the theatre stuffed, but not satiated.”
“Tired of the spoofsical?” asked Matthew Murray on Talkin’ Broadway, confessing that “some traditionalist wags (including yours truly) have seen them as a symbol of sclerotic insularity that’s more about making its audience feel secure in its preferences than in giving them anything concrete and new.” Yet, Murray acknowledged that Something Rotten! “subverts the subform by rooting its silliness in context and—gasp—plot. And, by doing so, totally changes the game.” He confessed, “I’ve never seen another musical like this that was more worth giving a chance (and I’ve seen just about all of them).” Murray explains that “what sets Something Rotten! apart” is that the “characters aren’t knowingly mocking anything; they’re trying to comprehend the incomprehensible based on the little information they have.” The play’s “not genius by a long shot,” argued the TB blogger, “and I’m not sure that, looked at from a few steps back, it’s even especially slick storytelling.” Although this kind of comedy “gets plenty of laughs,” said Murray, its innate “texture, prevents the overall enterprise from ever being great.” Nonetheless, Something Rotten! is “pretty good” and “a majority of the jokes land.” Even “though the lyrics can be iffy,” the on-line reviewer asserted, “the writers know and smartly work within their concept. . . . And the score . . . more than sustains the evening.” Murray continued: “Something Rotten!’s good-naturedness is among its best features” and the director-choreographer goes for “zany while somehow staying just under over-the-top.” The sets are “classic-looking, drop-heavy [and] surprisingly effective and varied, old-fashioned and newfangled all at once”; the costumes “inventively everyday, and restrained in their outlandishness”; and the lighting designer “lights everything well.” The last line of his notice affirmed, “Something Rotten! may not be fantastic, but it proves that a real musical for musical lovers is one that tells a story in a vibrant theatrical way—in other words, exactly what makes most people love musicals in the first place.”
Elyse Sommer declared the “zany backstage story” that is Something Rotten! ”that something new we’ve all been looking for” on CurtainUp. Though “not every joke is a home run,” Nicholaw’s direction and choreography are “peppy,” the “design work” is “colorful and varied,” and the company “is a terrific cast performing at the top of their game.” Sommer found, “The songs aren’t hummers but the lyrics are apt and the presentation is vivid and lively.” She concluded, “Something Rotten! is . . . more lowbow than highbrow,” but “it will be a winner with all who enjoy new-fangled takes on old-fashioned musical parodies.” On Broadway World, Michael Dale described the musical as an “uproarious success” with a “light and catchy traditional showtune score.” The “songs are full of funny ideas,” observed Dale, “but the cleverness of their work is pulled down by an abundance of false rhymes.” The production, though, has “appealing TV Variety show slickness” due to Nicholaw’s “flashy” direction and choreography and set designer Pask’s and costume designer Barnes’s “cartoon designs . . . embellishing period styles with funny modern touches.” The “all-star cast” does “their thing to the merry hilt,” reported the BWW reviewer, providing the audience with “a smashing good time.”