From Spamalot to The Book of Mormon to decades worth of editions of Forbidden Broadway, new musical comedies have found a prime target for their humor in theater itself. Something Rotten!, a guffaw-out-loud new production in the Mel Books mold that skipped the usual out-of-town trial (and error) run for a cold opening at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, spoofs not only the last half century of Broadway hits but also one of the most sacred of theatrical cows: William Shakespeare himself.
Here, the Bard is seen as a bovine (or at least boorish) rock-star figure. Played by Christian Borle with perfect peacocklike vanity, he’s ruthless enough to stoop to theft to defend his perch as the king of Elizabethan theater. Our hero, though, is an everyman with a name straight out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Nick Bottom, personified by Brian D’Arcy James in a spot-on comic performance. An aspiring theater impresario working with his more literary minded brother, Nigel (John Cariani), Bottom is confounded by Shakespeare’s success — in his opening song, “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” he even rhymes “his plays are wordy” with “that little turd, he” — and desperate to mount a hit of his own.
So Nick turns to one Thomas Nostradamus (a daffy Brad Oscar), the famed prognosticator’s nephew, for guidance on the Next Big Thing. And Nostradamus does indeed have acute visions of theater’s future — though that vision isn’t quite 20/20. Soon, the Bottoms are preparing the world’s “first” Broadway-style musical, and one that will pre-empt what Nostradamus believes will be Shakespeare’s biggest hit: Omelet.
Naturally, the yolk’s on Nick Bottom. Book writers Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell have cobbled together the funniest musical since The Book of Mormon, though one that wallows in puns and sophomoric silliness. And the score, by Kirkpatrick and his brother, the Grammy-winning Nashville songwriter Wayne, offers a similarly irreverent pastiche of the classic Broadway sound. The first-act ensemble number “A Musical” — which crams in melodic and choreographic references to everything from All That Jazz to Evita to Rent to A Chorus Line, complete with Elizabethan-era-appropriate drawn headshots — takes a clever idea and piles on additional layers of hilarity. It doesn’t just stop the show, it freezes it long enough to take a bathroom break. (At my performance, the ovation lasted about two minutes — and included actual calls for an encore.)
Even as it sends up Broadway conventions both old and new, though, Something Rotten! takes a populist, sometimes puerile point of view. Like a suburban Joe Sixpack, Nick gives voice to common suspicions (and grumblings) about musical-theater conventions. “An actor is saying his lines and then, out of nowhere, he just starts singing??” he asks Nostradamus. “Sounds miserable.” To which the seer croons in reply, “I believe it’s pronounced Miser-ahhh-bluh.”
Director Casey Nicholaw stages the silliness with the same enthusiastic aplomb he brought to The Book of Mormon and Aladdin. Here, he brings a polish and swiftness to the proceedings that helps hide some of the show’s narrative infelicities and dips into sitcommy TVLand, particularly in the narratively weaker second act. To borrow a phrase from the Bard’s Danish prince, though, Something Rotten! looks like a hit, a very palpable hit. Grade: A–