Just in time for the holidays, the rambunctious, crowd-pleasing national tour of Something Rotten! has opened at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre. This original musical, which ran for nearly two years on Broadway and was nominated for 9 Tony Awards, is a rare show that is equally enjoyable for theatre aficionados and more casual patrons alike. Chock full of references to other shows and tongue-in-cheek jokes about musicals as an art form, the laughs never stop in this entertaining story that offers a funny answer to an interesting question—how and why was the first musical written?
It’s 1595 and Nick Bottom (Rob McClure) and his brother Nigel Bottom (John Grisetti), have their own theatre troupe in South London. They are in a predicament that is so often seen in stories about struggling writers—they’ve been failing to produce hits, and have been told if they don’t redeem themselves by coming up with an amazing new play by the very next day, they will lose their funding. To raise the stakes even higher, Nick’s wife, Bea (Maggie Lakis) is pregnant. The trouble is, no matter what Nick does, he has been living in the shadow of his ex-friend turned nemesis William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), who has taken the theatre scene by storm. Humorously, this version of Shakespeare is a self-absorbed rock star with a giant ego who is worshipped by everyone around him and treated practically as a deity, much to Nick’s dismay.
In a desperate attempt to one-up his rival, save his theatre troupe, and provide for his wife and baby, Nick spends his family’s life savings on a visit to a fortune teller, Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), nephew of the famous Nostradamus. Nick wants to know what the next big trend in theatre will be, and is perplexed when Nostradamus declares that it will be musicals. The number that ensues, titled “A Musical,” is the highlight of the show, a dazzling six minutes that sums up the entire art form in hilarious fashion, while jamming in so many nods to famous musicals that even those with an encyclopedic knowledge may not catch them all. It’s such a showstopper that a portion of the opening night crowd in Los Angeles even gave it a rare mid-act standing ovation. Not only is it pivotal within the story of Something Rotten!, it also stands on its own as a vignette that manages to acknowledge the more ridiculous aspects of musicals (“an actor is saying his lines, and out of nowhere he just starts singing?!”) while still celebrating them as the entertaining delights they are.
Nigel, who secretly admires Shakespeare and is a talented poet himself, is quite skeptical of his brother’s plan to write the very first musical. He gets distracted from the mission when he meets Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), a rebellious Puritan who shares his love of language and storytelling. As Nick struggles to get his musical in good enough shape for the rapidly approaching opening night, differences of opinion between the Bottom brothers threaten their relationship, and Nick’s vendetta against Shakespeare escalates until he is in even further over his head.
Some of the jokes could be described as cheap, but within the tone of the show, most of them land. For example, there are many not-so-subtle nods to the link between homosexuality and a passion for musical theater, including a number that is literally called “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top” that likely goes right over the heads of younger audience members. In a musical very driven by men, the character of Bea is a breath of fresh air. A feminist before her time, she insists on dressing as a man so she can obtain employment, although it’s a bit intentionally depressing when she declares that by 1600, women will surely have total equality.
The cast is first rate—many are seasoned Broadway performers, and it shows. In lesser hands the character of Nick Bottom could become quite unlikable, but McClure manages to keep him grounded and charming, difficult to hate even when he’s making horrendous decisions. Grisetti is the vocal standout of the bunch as Nigel, who is also the main character with the most depth. Pascal is playing a type those who know him as Roger in Rent will recognize, but as usual, he does it well. The ensemble as a whole is also fantastic, pulling off complicated choreography in cumbersome costumes with ease.
The music, written by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, is catchy and clever, and Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography shine, incorporating a lot of tap dancing and nods to classic musicals. The plot is fairly conventional and surface-level, but that can almost be excused as part of the joke. The story hits every item on the checklist for a basic musical—stakes, complications, a neat and uplifting resolution. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, it focuses on celebrating an art and garnering as many laughs as possible. It is original in its intentional unoriginality, and the audience—myself included—ate it up. Something Rotten! is just fun, plain and simple, and is sure to warm the heart of even the most cynical of theatergoers.
Something Rotten! runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through December 31st. The running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. To enter a lottery to win $25 tickets, download the TodayTix app.