The current Broadway Lights season has brought Charlotte a hit musical from 2015, constructed around a brilliant English-speaking writer who redefined his culture centuries ago before dying in middle age.
It’ll also bring “Hamilton.” But this week, I’m talking about “Something Rotten!” That Tony-nominated comedy sails in with an endless supply of entertaining nonsense, spoofing not only the Bard of Avon – a quill-wielding quipster, pompous pop star of the Globe Theatre pit – but the giddy excesses of musical theater itself.
For all its silliness, the libretto by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell assumes you’ll bring a certain amount of intelligence to the show. If you don’t know Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe were writers in 1590s England –- not to mention candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, according to some scholars – you won’t know why characters “ooooh” upon meeting them. And if you don’t have a solid grounding in American musical theater, you won’t laugh at dialogue like this:
Playwright Nigel Bottom: “What is a fiddler, and why is he on the roof?”
Producer Nick Bottom: “Because that’s where the chim-chim-a-nee is!”
You should now be thinking of “Fiddler” and “Mary Poppins,” or (like some glum folks I saw in Belk Theater Tuesday) you may feel like a guest at a club whose members haven’t taught you the secret handshake. That shouldn’t happen if you’ve seen or listened to great shows from “South Pacific” to “The Phantom of the Opera” – and if you haven’t, what would you be doing at “Rotten”?
Musical spoofs flow through the story because Nick (Rob McClure) has paid Nostradamus (Blake Hammond) to predict the future of theater, thus assuring that hapless Nick and brother Nigel (Josh Grisetti) will come up with a hit. Nick so loathes their superstar competitor that he also pays the soothsayer to tell him what Shakespeare’s greatest play will be, so Nick can steal the idea. This seems fair, as Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) has apparently been stealing Nigel’s lines for years.
Nostradamus tells Nick that musicals will provide the path to immortality, though nobody has written one yet, and Shakespeare’s masterpiece will be called “Omelet.” (He comes so close.) The siblings set out to write a musical about a murdered king, his corrupt brother, the nephew cheated of the crown, and giant tap-dancing eggs. (The uncle’s called “Scar,” of course, because “The Lion King” replicates “Hamlet.” I veldt you’d want to know that.)
You’re also meant to catch Shakespearean references. When wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) dons men’s clothes to defend Nick in court, she’s pulling a Portia from “The Merchant of Venice.” Which is interesting, because there’s already a Portia in this show – a winsome preacher’s daughter (Autumn Hurlbert) who falls for Nigel – and there’s a Shylock (Jeff Brooks), though he’s a mensch who backs the Bottoms financially.
Two-and-a-half hours whirl by under the direction of Casey Nicholaw, who also provides the snappy choreography. And if the tunes by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick run together after a time, the puns and in-jokes never pale. Nicholaw encourages his cast to exaggerate just enough that we don’t take anything too seriously, even the “to thine own self be true” moral of Act 2.
All the actors embrace this philosophy successfully, especially Pascal as a Shakespeare who’s not just supercilious but cruel and Grisetti, who makes naïve Nigel seem deeper than he’s written. McClure’s boisterous bravura, so apt here, made me want to see him someday as Nick Bottom the weaver. If you have to ask who that is, you’ll definitely be at the wrong show if you see “Something Rotten!”
WHEN: Through May 13 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes, one intermission.
TICKETS: $25-$139.50, including $25 for student rush or patrons buying less than two hours before curtain.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.