By Justin Hopkins ’07 || Contributing Writer
As the curtain rises, revealing the thatched roofs of Tudor houses, a bard (not The Bard, not yet) strumshis lute and bids us, “Welcome to the Renaissance”—where science and art are exploding, and British culture is coming of age, “where everything is new.”
Well, maybe not quite everything.
On the one hand, Something Rotten, now starting its second year of what I suspect will be several, at least, on Broadway, revisits familiar territory, asking an age-old question: what if William Shakespeare didn’t write the works that bear his name? (Anonymous, anyone?) It’s probably not even the first time the authorship controversy has been explored through parodic song and scene. But surely Shakespeare has never yet been portrayed as part of a musical production featuring a dozen dancing omelets—yes, dancing omelets—and lyrics like “Don’t be a penis, the man is a genius!” That must be a first.
And it’s a blast. Director Casey Nicholaw’s ebulliently absurd interpretation of creators Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s fatuous but fabulous pastiche of classical and contemporary (very melo)drama and comedy simultaneously celebrates and sends up all that is both splendid and silly about the theatre from the last 400 years.
The story is simple. Bottom brothers Nick (brilliantly crafted by Brian D’Arcy James) and Nigel (played with charm by John Cariani) need a new hit play to compete with the megastar Will Shakespeare, who keeps stealing their stories, and even their specific words. The solution? Consult a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (nephew to The Great, nimbly delivered by Brad Oscar), about what the future holds for the theater. First commenting on accommodations—“Things are very nice: cushy seats…a roof!”—then digging deeper, the seer sees…“Musicals!”
Incredulous at first, Nick is convinced at last, but still he needs to know more: what will be Shakespeare’s greatest work? The prophet peers into the mists of time, and perceives “something Danish…with ham…a breakfast theme…” To what does it all add up? Why, Omelet: The Musical! Enter the dancing eggs, as well as a Gertrude who trills, “I could have daaanced all night,” a Claudius who echoes the MC from Cabaret (“Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!”), and a Ghost who wears the Phantom of the Opera’s iconic half-mask, not to mention a nun with a guitar, a fiddler on a roof, and a squad of chimney sweepers. It’s a glorious, meta mess.
Of course, there are plenty of sub-plotlines to complement the main action. Nick struggles to contain his wife, Bea’s enthusiasm for a woman’s right to work: “by 1600, women will be completely equal!” she insists, and belts out, “Let me be your right hand man!” Kudos to Heidi Blickenstaff for managing the challenging, almost abrasive melody. Later Nick bumps into a disguised Bea, bearded and bearing bear feces in a bucket to make a buck because, it turns out, she’s pregnant. “Are you sure it’s not the Plague?” Nick queries, almost wistfully. Now he really has to have a hit.
Meanwhile, Nigel falls in love with Kate Reinders’ pretty Portia (“Good name,” says Shakespeare, meeting her), a Puritan who shares his passion for poetry. They compare how many times they’ve seen Romeo and Juliet, and then settle in for some sonnet recitation before they’re interrupted by Portia’s father, the furious Jeremiah (a delightfully dastardly David Beach), whose aggressive homophobia is obviously an over-compensation for his real desires: he promises to have Bottom “tied to a post, begging for mercy as I give you the rod!”
Then there’s the stage-struck Shylock (Gerry Vichi, enthusiastically embracing every available Semitic stereotype), whom Shakespeare has promised to include in future work: “the really nice Jew.” And the stuffy Justice of the Peace (Edward Hibbert), who worries about being misrepresented: “I wouldn’t want to look the fool!” “You shan’t,” Shakespeare assures him, “…Lord Falstaff.” The script is as rich with allusions to Shakespeare’s canon as to the body of Broadway history.
Still, most successful by far is the portrayal of the Bard himself, courtesy of Christian Borle, who won a (second) Tony for his turn as the great “Will of the people.” First seen striding a scarlet carpet as his fans stand behind a red velvet rope and pant and chant “We love him! We love him! We love him! We love him!” he is later rolled in on a wooden platform like a rock god—“The King of Couplets…The Man of the Iam in iambic pentameter”—from which he treats his cheering public to a medley of his greatest hits. “Shall I compare thee…” he calls out, gyrating like a cross between Elvis and Mick Jagger, and prompting the adoring throng, which promptly answers, “…to a summer’s day?!” Shakespeare shakes his shoulders and thrusts his hips, and the mob shrieks. Borle perfectly presents a Will well aware of his power, yet not nearly above filching Nigel’s notes and passing them off as his own.
The show is not perfect. The songs occasionally verge on the stupid. I could skip the gospel-y “We see the light”: the choir croons, “We’re wrong, you’re right. Salvation is yours: You do what is true to you, and you do it with looooooove”— pass. But then they swing to the stupendous: “I don’t have the luxury to hang all my hopes on some simplistic trope like ‘To thine own self be true!’” The choreography is clichéd but also kind of cool, from traditional palm-to-palm English courtly mincing, to disco, to can-can kicks, to competitive tap-offs, to full-on breakdancing. Scott Pask’s extravagant design, along with Natasha Katz’s loud lighting and Gregg Barnes’ elaborate costumes, create a dynamic environment that shifts from period piece to art-deco backdrops illuminated by bright and flashing magenta and filled with chorus girls and boys waving feathery fans and wiggling white-gloved jazz hands.
If you like your Shakespeare pure and proper, or your musicals a little less self-conscious, you should probably skip this spectacle. But if you’re up for some serious and sublime spoofing, you will want to witness a production-within-a-production that begins with a spotlight on a man cradling not a skull but an egg in his palm, murmuring, “Alas, poor yolk, I knew thee well.” Cue those dancing omelets.
Justin Hopkins ‘07 is the assistant director of the Writing Center. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.