Dallas — A funny thing happened on the way to the Renaissance, and it’s onstage at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the Broadway Series. Something Rotten!, the musical by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (score) and John O’Farrell (book), was a Broadway hit in 2015, garnering many Tony nominations and generating a big social media buzz from delighted audiences.
The current touring production, onstage at the Winspear Opera House, had opening night theatergoers clapping, whistling and stomping even before the intermission with an elaborate and hilarious song and dance number called “A Musical.” Who goes to musicals? Folks who love musicals, right? And this song alone references at least two dozen fast spoofs and choreography bits to get everybody cheering.
Set in Elizabethan England in 1590, the play features the Bottom brothers, two guys trying to get a show on the boards at a moment when Shakespeare owns the town, the queen and virtually all the patrons. Stout-hearted and sturdy Nick (tireless tapper Rob McClure reprising his Broadway role) is the go-getter with a yen to move this Bottom to the top. Tall and tenderhearted Nigel (soaring tenor Josh Grisetti eliciting swoons with his angelic good looks) is the poet and innocent yearning to write about his real feelings.
The brother theme here has real heart, and these two characters reminded me of the old Simon and Garfunkel duo at the height of their bromance.
Desperate for a new idea for a play that Shakespeare hasn’t already done, Nick seeks out a soothsayer named Nostradamus, embodied here by merry Falstaffian Blake Hammond, a Texas native. “Not the Nostradamus,” says awed Nick. “No, his nephew Thomas,” says the enterprising oracle, who rhymes with ease but tends to get his prophesies askew.
The next new thing, Nostradamus foresees, is a kind of play where everybody just suddenly starts singing. His vision, relayed to Nick and energetically enacted on the spot by the talented company, includes everything from Rockette-style chorus lines to Les Mes drama, with a little Evita thrown in to a knock-out tap-dance finish. Maybe nothing is more ridiculously funny and delightful than a stageful of men in full Renaissance regalia, big codpieces bobbing, riffing their way with expert ease through a perfect tap number. You gotta be there.
The songs throughout are fetching and clever, if not deeply memorable. McClure is an irresistible mash-up of charisma and energy, and his delivery of “I Hate Shakespeare” is hissy-funny. The rhyme’s the thing in most of his songs. Even Nick’s own troupe members scold him for his blatant Bard envy, “Don’t be a penis; the man is a genius.”
Nick’s loyal wife Bea (played by a feisty Maggie Lakis, McClure’s real-life wife) decides to go to work to support her playwright husband. She calls herself his “Right- Hand Man,” and looks voluptuous in a ruffled skirt or her man outfit.
When the Bard does show up, in the rock star persona of Adam Pascal, he turns out to be a publicity hungry, line-stealing egomaniac. In his big number, “Hard to Be the Bard,” Pascal is not just tight-pants hunky with his jacket open to the waist, but charmingly comic. With a plea to the audience, he chews frantically on his quill and tries to come up with a spark of an idea while shut alone in his room with nothing but writer’s block and a bust of himself. “It’s sexy, but it’s really hard to be the Bard,” Pascal sings, backed by his leather-clad troupe, also getting down to the beat in sympathy with the most famous playwright who ever lived. “Somebody’s gotta do it,” as Will says.
Meanwhile, back in the town square, Nigel has fallen in love at first sight with a gorgeous young Puritan named Portia (pert, petite Autumn Hurlbert) whose orgasmic squeals bring down the house when Nigel reads her his sonnets. Her theater-hating daddy, (a hilariously mincing Scott Cote) orders her home. Lovelorn Nigel brings his romantic and writerly desires together in the beautiful song “To Thine Own Self.”
The plot thickens into something with eggs, legs and some crazy songs and dances when Nick gets the word from Nostradamus that he sees the greatest play ever written glimmering from the future. “Omellete,” he declares. Well sort of. Nick leans on his troupe, his unwilling brother and a new investor to launch this big number that’s bound to assure that “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top.”
Before all the eggs are cracked, the sneaky Bard comes looking for ideas in a fat actor disguise, and the show does go on! And on!
Justice prevails, more songs are sung and we get a new musical for a new world, plus a reprise of the showstopper from the first act. Play it again, Nick. No wait. That’s the movies.