REVIEW: "Something Rotten!" — Musical Theatre West @ Carpenter Performing Arts Center
Updated: Jun 20
“It’s Quite a New Sensation! What Shall We Call it? — Will Power!”
In the vein of satirical musical comedies and parodies, such as Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” and “Urinetown,” “Something Rotten!” is a hilarious, intoxicating send-up of musical theatre, a farcical, post-modern Shakespearean riff centered on a couple of playwright brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who are on a quest to write their very first musical for the stage, all while competing with the wild popularity of their nemesis, contemporary playwright, William Shakespeare.
The production basks in the puerile puns, giggly double-entendres, lip-smacking bad taste and goofy pastiche numbers often found in college revues. All those traits, I should add, have also propelled two of the most successful Broadway musicals of recent years: "The Book of Mormon" and Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” Yet how restrained and elegant those shows seem to be next to “Something Rotten!”
A Musical Theatre West triumph, “Something Rotten!” officially opened at Carpenter Performing Arts Center last Friday, October 18th, and runs through Sunday, November 3rd. The show was originally nominated for ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, winning one with Christian Borle as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Its cast album also received a nomination for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Here’s the setup: The year is 1595 and the English Renaissance is in full flower in Tudor London. Isaac Newton will soon discover gravity; King Henry IV of France declares war on Spain and Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet” has just opened to a rousing success. In a clever opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” we’re introduced to some of the marvels of this wondrous age. Cue Francis Bacon, clutching a chicken to let us know that he’s found a way to freeze meat. And here comes Sir Walter Raleigh, aristocratic nose in the air and puffing on a pipe filled with tobacco, the marvelous substance he brought back from his travels to the new world. And don’t even get these cheerleaders started on all the brilliant playwrights of the age, like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Dekker and John Middleton.
Among this rivalry are writers Nick Bottom and his brother Nigel, who need to come up with a hit play or their ragtag troupe will be out of business. But no one in town can compete with the local rock star, Will Shakespeare, who makes the ladies swoon and the men green with envy. Certainly not our resolute brothers (Eric Petersen, as the charming rogue, Nick, and Beau Brians, as an endearing innocent Nigel), who can’t seem to catch a break. Even their last name is Bottom, and, to any writer, fodder for an inexhaustible source of wordplay. But now, their theater troupe will lose their rich patronage if they can’t come up with an idea for a play that Shakespeare hasn’t done already. “Oh, God, I hate Shakespeare!” rails Nick, in plummy tones of envious contempt.
And so, like its antic ancestors, “Something Rotten!” has a sacred cow to skewer. In this tale, it’s the inflated reputation of one William Shakespeare, a crafty and egomaniacal plagiarist who leaves no room for competition. Or, as the lyrics put it, “If your name is Shakespeare, you’re hotter than hot. But if you’re any other writer, well then you’re not.”
Grasan Kingsberry brings his well-polished panoply of comic tics, winks and flourishes to his delivery of Shakespeare as a glam rock star. As anyone who has seen him in one of his previous eleven Broadway shows, you would probably surmise he is a master of carefully stylized excess. In THIS show, you should multiply that by 10. Mr. Kingsberry, who has us in raptures with his cock-of-the-walk one-man rockfest and overstuffed codpiece, portrays such a conceited superstar that no other playwright has a chance — not even Thomas Kyd, whose plays Shakespeare brazenly ransacks for plots.
This monopoly makes life very hard for the brothers. Looking for ideas, and desperate to avoid going into hock to Shylock (Roland Rusinek), Nick raids the nest egg accumulated by his wife, Bea (the feisty Chelle Denton), and consults an eccentric soothsayer named Nostradamus (a frothing Davis Gaines), begging him to foresee the next big thing in theatre.
A Musical! the overly farsighted seer predicts, in which the actors are speaking their lines, and then stop dead in their tracks and sing a song. “Preposterous,” Nick says. “Impossible! It will never fly!”
But wise Nostradamus assures Nick that one day Will is going to dazzle the whole world with his immortal work — in a musical called, “Omelette.” Unconvinced, Nick doesn’t think this strutting peacock (“I am the Will with the skill! To thrill you with the quill!”) seems mature enough to write something truly earth-shaking.
But the brothers give it their best shot. Unfortunately, their musical about the Black Death (“that pesty little pestilence is killing half of Europe! It’s the Black Death — mmm-mmm-woo-woo — and it’s coming for you-oo”) doesn’t seem to please their patron, Lord Clapham (Also Mr. Rusinek in an amusing blusterer). And now the pressure is on.
What follows is an invigorating, Davis Gaines’ Nostradamus-led “pull-out-all-the-stops” number that provides the vision for the shape of entertainment to come in a quirky spectacle called, “A Musical.” It features melodic and choreographic references to every musical you could think of, from “West Side Story” to “Les Misérables.”
During the number, Nostradamus and the chorus don sailor hats, harkening to several nautical-themed musicals, including “South Pacific,” “Anything Goes,” “On the Town” and “Dames at Sea.” Eventually the hilarious, six-minute climactic song encapsulates the entire book of musicals from the past 50 years (along with a couple of flops), in a word parade chocked-full of witty references, wholesale peppiness and unchecked enthusiasm. Any classics that were not namechecked then are dutifully mentioned in the second-act misnomer, “Make an Omelette.”
This shameless parody of Broadway musicals — and outrageous spoof of all things Shakespeare — was originally hatched from the fevered brains of brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, aided by comic novelist John O’Farrell and abetted at MTW by Director Josh Grisetti (Broadway – “Something Rotten,” “Broadway Bound”) and Choreographer Eric Sciotto (Broadway – “Something Rotten,” “Nice Work if You Can Get it”).
If all this sounds exhausting, the large cast onstage betrays no signs of flagging. Clad in what are surely very heavy Elizabethan costumes, and performing what is essentially the same determined showstopper again and again, the ensemble members in this “Broadway-does-the-Renaissance” frolic remain as wired as Adderall-popping sophomores during exam week.
Phallic humor abounds, starting with the oversized codpieces worn by the men (Robin L. McGee is the Costume Designer), one in which Nigel, played with rather charming nerdiness by Mr. Brians, reaches into when he tells the girl he adores, Portia (Madison Claire Parks, doing an impressive channeling of Kristin Chenoweth), “I have something to show you.”
Fortunately, it’s only a sonnet that he keeps in his makeshift fanny pack. And, oh yes, there’s a sonnet reading by Mr. Brians that is rendered as a parallel to that “nervous to the service, gone in 60 seconds, rusty zipper-like pickle sneeze” (you get the picture). Altogether hilarious and bringing chortles of laughter, it reminded me fondly of a similar scene culled from “Saturday Night Live” in their heyday.
The show, superbly Directed by Mr. Grisetti, 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 brothers: Eric Petersen as a convincing, frustrated Nick with mannerisms reminiscent of Nathan Lane. Or Beau Brians in a red-letter role as the sensitive, impassioned Nigel, who adores his older brother but finds it difficult to stand up to him. (Side Note: The Bottom brothers are named after the character, Bottom, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”)
The supporting performers are all exemplary. Chelle Denton scintillates as Nick’s stalwart, plucky wife, Bea, a precocious feminist, “This is the ’90s! We’ve got a woman on the throne!” The quite versatile Roland Rusinek is peerless as a Jewish theater lover named, uh, Shylock, and also plays well the Minstrel, Lord Clapham, and a few others; Dedrick Bonner is a model of perfection as the vilifying and disapproving Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, but, “O My Mansoul!” is the fall-guy to many inadvertent erection jokes. Madison Claire Parks is astral as golden-haired Portia, a wide-eyed, poetry-loving daughter of Brother Jeremiah, nicely complementing the doting, love-struck Nigel. And Grasan Kingsberry slays in the role of the self-absorbed rock star Shakespeare, a renaissance James Brown in Rococo leather pants, exuding charm even when stealing from the earnest Nigel.
Erik Scott Romney is Tom Snout, Erik Stretch is Robin, Antwone Barnes is Peter Quince, Justin Goei is Snug, Landon Zwick is Frances Flute, and Antoine T. Lee is Yorick. Additional ensemble cast includes: Leo Ayala, Bernadette Bentley, Quintan Craig, Mia Davidson, Jennifer Knox, Drew Lake, Valerie Larsen, MacKenzie Perpich (also the Dance Captain), Tanner Rampton, and Beth Roy.
Jam-packed with outrageous puns, bad jokes and inside references to Shakespeare and Broadway, but on steroids, those qualities are extended in the comically whimsical settings by Paul Black (also Lighting Designer), and spot-on costumes by Robin L. McGee. Sound Design is by Terry Dycus, Props managed by Dylan Powell, Technical Direction by Kevin Clowes, Stage Management by Bree Sherry, with Assist by Shay Garber. The Music Director/Conductor is Dennis Castellano, Choreographer is Eric Sciotto, Company Manager is Bren Thor, and Production Manager is Matt Terzigni. Associate Producer is Dennis Poulsen, and the Executive Director/Producer of the show is Paul Garman.
With one sensational choreographed number after another, blended with pristine voices, an array of colors and hilarious insider jokes on Shakespeare and modern musicals, this show is non-stop entertainment. Musical Theatre West’s “Something Rotten” continues through November 3rd, playing at Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach. Embrace the exclamation point and come join the fun! For ticket information and reservations, please see http://musical.org/something-rotten-tickets/
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Caught in the Moment Photography