Shakespeare is a charismatic and conniving copycat who wears skin-tight leather pants in the new musical comedy “Something Rotten!” An easygoing effort from the director of “The Book of Mormon,” the real brains—and heart—of “Rotten!” belong to the Bottom Brothers, a pair of aspiring writers who challenge the Bard on his own turf.
Now open at the St. James Theatre, “Rotten!” delivers the same sort of accessible and over-the-top laughs as “Mormon.” Both stem from the talents of Casey Nicholaw, the director and choreographer who here teams with brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (one is a songwriter; the other helped pen “Chicken Run”).
“Rotten!” is set in Elizabethan-era London. Shakespeare (Christian Borle) and Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James) once performed in the same acting troupe, but while the former has gone on to success, the latter, along with sibling Nigel (John Cariani), struggles to make a name: “Why is he the Bard? … He’s just one of the bards,” Nick insists.
Everything is turned around when Nick consults an out-of-synch soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar)—perhaps you’ve heard of his uncle?—who convinces him the future of theater lies in one direction: singing. Nick doesn’t quite get the gist, producing a cheerful, upbeat production number called “The Black Death.”
A generous sampling of Shakespearean conventions helps elevate an otherwise-thin and double entendre-laden plot.
While Borle’s role is flashier, it’s d’arcy James, last seen as a Brit chastising Colonials in “Hamilton,” who does the heavy-lifting. He’s the closest thing “Something Rotten!” has to a serious character, and he’s under pressure, not just from his lender, Shylock (yep, they go there), but also his pregnant wife (Heidi Blickenstaff, of “[title of show]”).
Tony-winner Borle (TV’s “Smash” and Broadway’s “Peter and the Starcatcher”) is clearly beside himself with glee at the chance to play the preening rock-star scribe who throws parties in the park. A cute moment has obsessive fans holding up candles to display their adulation, since Bic lighters were still a few centuries off. (Pockets apparently were a ways off, too: costumes worn by male characters all have codpieces evoking “Spamalot.”)
John Cariani (“Fiddler on the Roof”), with his weak stomach and insecurities, is the underdog we cheer for, an ink-stained wretch who actually comes up with the lines we today credit to Shakespeare, but who focuses his energies on pursuing passion with the equally sonnet-minded Portia (Kate Reinders). (Cariani is below left, with d'Arcy James and Blickenstaff.)
Oscar, of “The Producers,” gets all the Nazi jokes one mass-appeal entertainment can provide, plus a mighty first-act showstopper, “A Musical.” Delivered with feigned-surprise and some phenomenal tap-dancing, it foreshadows the entertainment that will go on to please audiences years from now. Look for references to “Annie,” “Fiddler,” “Les Miz,” “A Chorus Line,” “Dreamgirls,” “The Lion King” and “Chicago,” plus “Chess,” for the insiders. This one’s pure genius.
Brooks Ashmanskas is on hand as the Puritan Jeremiah, Portia’s father, who is saddled with too much stock dialogue. The ensemble is particularly strong, notably Michael James Scott, as the minstrel who opens the show with the catchy scene-setter “Welcome to the Renaissance.”
“Rotten!” paints musical theater culture in the same broad strokes that the “The Book of Mormon” used to satirize religion—everyone gets to be in on the joke. This new musical makes us do just enough work that we feel satisfied for picking up on them. Go for the production numbers and the big-hearted turns from the leads, whose enthusiasm ultimately proves even more infectious than the plague.
“Something Rotten!” has an open-ended run at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th St. Tickets: $37-$142. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.