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Broadway in Cincinnati Serves Up Something Rotten with No Holds Bard

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Something Rotten: Broadway in Cincinnati

Adam Pascal (center) as William Shakespeare in “Something Rotten”

First, a confession: I came into Something Rotten with a little trepidation, which may seem surprising, since a musical send-up of Shakespeare should be just the ticket for a lover of both musicals and Shakespeare, as I am. Nevertheless, I have seen so many Shakespeare spoofs and goofy period musicals, I was asking myself, what could this production possibly have to offer that’s new or different? The name kept reminding me of that stale ’70s TV series that spoofed Robin Hood, “When Things Were Rotten”.

Nor was I very encouraged by the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance”, which was just standard fare, and whose clever lyrics (presumably) were entirely drowned out by the music. That reminded me of an interview I heard with Stephen Sondheim, who noted that he had to rewrite the opening to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum three times before coming up with the right number, “Comedy Tonight”. I wish the writers of this musical had been as compulsive with their introduction.

But, never fear, true believers, Something Rotten gradually took off from there, and by the time we finished the middle of the first act and the huge, brilliant number “A Musical”, a pastiche of modern musicals that is at once a skewering and an homage, the show had found its footing and never looked back. Frankly, I haven’t seen a bigger showstopper in a musical since The Producers, which, oddly enough, was one musical that was not referenced in the number but to which Something Rotten undoubtedly owes its biggest debt.

Like Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom from that classic, Elizabethan playwright Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) and his nebbischy brother Nigel (Josh Grisetti) are in search of a hit, but are thwarted at every turn by William Shakespeare, who is literally a rock star of his age and makes the women and the critics alike swoon. Shakespeare, a role that originally won a Tony for Christian Borle, is played by perfectly-cast Adam Pascal, the original Roger in Rent, who plays him as arrogant and manipulative but somehow endearing in his own way. Also like Bialystock, Nick turns to a not quite kosher method to achieve success—he seeks out the soothsayer Nostradamus (or, at least, his less than accurate nephew, Thomas Nostradamus) to find out “the next big thing” ahead of time. That happens to be “the musical”, leading to the aforementioned show-stopper as Nostradamus (a hysterical Blake Hammond) proceeds to try to explain to an incredulous Nick just what that is (and steals the show in the process).

Unfortunately, Nick and Nigel’s first attempt, “Here Comes the Black Death”, doesn’t quite cut it, so he returns to Nostradamus to get specifics on what will be Shakespeare’s greatest hit. Here, Nostradamus proves to be a little off the mark, but does come up with Omelette, a breakfast themed tragedy of a young prince who also likes to eat Danishes. Omelette also seems to get scrambled with modern musicals, as the ghost of the prince’s father is wearing a Phantom mask and Ophelia, after she gets herself to a nunnery, is apparently protected by the nuns until the Nazis arrive, whoever they are. (This leads to the funniest line of the night, which I won’t spoil). Somehow this silliness all works and climaxes with the show-within-a-show production of Omelette, ala Springtime for Hitler, and an equally Producer-like but charming denouement and resolution. In between it weaves together subplots including Nick’s steadfast and plucky wife Bea (played by Rob McClure’s real life wife, Maggie Lakis) and a romance between Nigel and one of the local Puritans’ daughters, Portia (Autumn Hurlbert).

Something Rotten succeeds most brilliantly when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the second act stalls occasionally when it gets a little bogged down in the romance and its unabashedly sappy message: ”This above all, to thine own self be true”. But no matter. The charm, earnestness, and extreme talent of the entire cast, the infectious music by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, the eye-catching dance numbers and the endless barrage of jokes and musical references more than carry the show. Something Rotten has already closed on Broadway, and may never be an enduring classic, but something tells me there were plenty of high school, college, and community theatre artistic directors who were there last night drooling about putting it on for themselves, so I doubt it is disappearing any time soon. Trust me, whether you love Shakespeare, musicals, or just a fun night of theatre, Something Rotten has eggs-actly what you need, served sonnet-side-up with a side of Francis Bacon.

Something Rotten plays through Sunday, March 5th. Tickets can be obtained through the Broadway in Cincinnati website, http://cincinnati.broadway.com/shows/something-rotten-baa/.