The company of Something Rotten! Photo: Broadway in Louisville.
Music & lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick & Karey Kirkpatrick
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell
Directed by Steve Bebout
Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
Something Rotten! roared into town this week. And judging from the high-energy opening night, audiences won’t be lifting their noses at this hybrid Shakespeare/Musical production. The title itself is a quotation from one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays and includes the ubiquitous use of exclamation points in titles of musicals. Additionally, this particular quote points to some of the plot points in the storyline.
The production originally opened on Broadway in 2015. Its pedigree includes creators from the worlds of film, pop songs, and comedy writing. For Karey Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and John O’Farrell this was their first effort to create a Broadway musical and one that opened there without a traditional out of town tryout. The production now in Louisville as part of the second national tour of Something Rotten!
This production is at its best when it is paying full-blooded homage to the American Musical, namely the Act One showstopper ‘A Musical’. The lyrical and musical quotations and allusions to a century’s worth of musicals are clever and nimble. Appreciative laughs and gasps (and head-shakings) rippled around Whitney Hall as different parts of the house caught up with the witty acrobatics in song and melody. And the choreography kept pace too, referencing iconic moments in the history of musicals.
There’s also a lot of Shakespearean allusion embedded in the text, some of it so fleeting you almost miss it, and some flagged overtly. The audience vocally registered fewer of these allusions, nonetheless, collective general knowledge of Shakespearean and Elizabethan tropes is assumed by the writers as the storyline develops. Even Shakespeare-phobes know enough about Hamlet for the central motif of creating ‘Omelette, The Musical’ to be ridiculously delicious. The other property that shares more than a passing familiarity with this show is the movie Shakespeare in Love, from which many allusions are drawn.
It’s in the first few scenes in which Something Rotten! is off-kilter. The opening number, ‘Welcome to the Renaissance’ and the following book scenes don’t feel like they know what they want to be; a parody of either a musical or a Shakespeare play; authentically or pseudo-historical; etc. In part this is the storytelling, in part, it’s how it’s staged. Casey Nicholaw directed and choreographed the original, and his associate director, Steve Bebout, who is uncredited in the title page of the program although his bio is included elsewhere, is the director of record for this tour. The early exposition to get us to ‘A Musical’ through the vision of (Thomas) Nostradamus for the next big thing in theatre is unwieldy and doesn’t serve the actors well.
One of the rotten things in the story is not only that William Shakespeare is already unduly famous, but he’s a rotter too, arrogant and not above stealing other writers’ lines. English transplant Matthew Baker has great fun in this glam-rock, bedazzled, role. And the rock concert ‘Will Power’ is another high point in Act One. The role of Nostradamus (Greg Kalafatas) is the catalyst for creating a proto-musical, and Kalafatas throws himself into the visions – from which he receives hilariously out-of-context glimpses of what a musical can be – with an almost childlike joy of discovering the new and wonderful.
The Bottom brothers, Nick (of course) and Nigel, played by Matthew Michael Janisse and Richard Spitaletta respectively, are the drivers for the story: running a theatre, they can’t stay ahead of Shakespeare, so Nick decides to get ahead literally by seeing what the future brings. A rotten trick on his little brother, the primary writer, who is drawn to a more Shakespearean form of writing than the mélange of ‘Omelette’ permits. Nick also falls in love with Puritan Portia (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith) who, of course, is really a romantic and ready to defy her father. Overt shades of Romeo and Juliet, which they’ve both seen multiple times, of course. It’s here that the heart of the production is. Spitaletta and Smith find the quiet moments, as well as the silly ones, in a relationship, they’re determined won’t end in doom. Janisse comes into his own by ‘A Musical’ after the heavy lifting of the earlier scenes. Nick’s wife Bea (Emil Kristen Morris) is also loaded down with exposition, and awkwardly 21st-century feminist points of view that feel tacked on, but shines in her first number ‘Right Hand Man’ and her impersonations of working men when she seeks jobs to help the family finances.
Scott Pask’s scenic design straddles some awkward demands of the script. Most successful are the backdrop for ‘A Musical’, the individual pieces of furniture in ‘Hard to be a Bard’ whose choreography is as intricate as that of the dancers, and a stunning trompe l’oeil backdrop of a period courthouse in Act Two. The streets of south London are evocatively created with traditional musical theatre wings and legs. But the scenes in the theatre and Nick’s house don’t belong in this world; the high-school-like set pieces don’t match the production values of the other scenes and beg the question of why not echo Shakespearean stage practices of an open stage. Gregg Barnes’ costume designs are colorful and opulent as required; again the ‘A Musical’ costumes are the highlight of the design. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design seemed under-served on opening night. Several cue shifts were unduly abrupt and appeared not to be focused appropriately; color at times was too overwhelming. No tour-specific designers are listed in the program, so it’s not clear how much of the original design aesthetic has carried over to this tour, and how much is merely replication. A semi-constant issue in the Whitney is the balance of orchestration and the human voice. These are lyrics that need to be heard; frequently it was challenging to discern the brisk patter.
Whether you like musicals or Shakespeare (or both) there’s enough cleverness in the lyrics and music to entertain. The performers bring exuberance to the production. And, particularly in the numbers that pay homage to musicals, the ensemble is impressive in the various styles of choreography they’re called upon to perform. Something Rotten! is almost as sweet as a rose, and will get your toes tapping during this cold January spell.
January 15 – 20, 2019
PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.