Thursday, May 14, 2015

Shakespeare's Omelet: A Splashy Something Rotten

Shakespeare and Broadway have been going together for a long time.
And beyond the countless revivals of Shakespeare's plays on The Great White Way (most notably Hamlet and Richard III, we suppose) Shakespeare has been feely adapted musically from West Side Story to Cole Porter's take on The Taming of the Shrew, titled Kiss Me Kate.
In that show, Porter advised us all to brush up on our Shakespeare with these distinctively witty lines:

Brush up your Shakespeare 
Start quoting him now 
Brush up your Shakespeare 
And the women you will wow 

Just declaim a few lines from Othella 
And they'll think you're a hell of a fella 
If your blonde won't respond when you flatter 'er 
Tell her what Tony told Cleopatterer 

If she fights when her clothes you are mussing 
What are clothes? Much ado about nussing 
Brush up your Shakespeare 
And they'll all kow-tow

Well, you'd better follow Porter's advice if you plan to see the new musical Something Rotten. Because not only is the bard a featured character in the show (broadly played by the talented Christian Borle) but Will's lines (and lies) are literally all over the place.
You know this is no ordinary musical right at the top of the show when Michael James Scott and the ensemble declare the Middle Ages dead and gone and break out into a rousing number called Welcome to the Renaissance. And that sets the pace for the whole evening -- a sort of vaudevillesque journey that juxtaposes eras and time frames in a show that combines elements of Pippin, Spamalot, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Drowsy Chaperone.
This is a musical without a single serious notion. It's simply silliness on steroids.
As the penniless playwright Bottom Brothers (Nick and Nigel) Brian D'arcy James and John Cariani are alternately fixated and frazzled as they set about trying to concoct a stage production in the shadow of the great Shakespeare. Nick decides to consult a soothsayer (superbly portrayed by Brad Oscar) who advises him to write something called a muuuusical -- a show where characters spontaneously burst into song for no apparent reason, even though they nonetheless advance the plot and enhance character development. 
And so, we get the number simply called A Musical -- perhaps the funniest, grandest, drop-dead display of hilarity your likely to see on Broadway this season. It really does stop the show, eliciting huzzahs from the crowd.
And this sets the Bottom Brothers on their circuitous journey to construct a new musical show entitled Omelet (sounds like Hamlet, get it?). But Shakespeare and a villainous preacher named Brother Jeremiah (Brooks Ashmanskas) have other ideas. Throw in Nigel's romance with the preacher's daughter (Kate Reinders) and you have the makings of a truly tortured, twisted tale.
And this is where the trouble comes in, because the ribald spontaneity of the whole affair clashes with what there is of a story. And the show reveals itself to be a very big production built around a much smaller idea. You begin to suspect that at the core, there are really only one or two jokes here spun dozens of different ways.
But the whole undertaking never takes itself seriously anyway. Which means you are invited to turn on your zany button, imagine history however you wish and go with the flow. And while you're doing so, listen closely for the countless lines from Shakespeare, the fractured historical references, the inside-Broadway jokes, the mimicry of other musicals and the present-day asides. 
One minute you're at Forbidden Broadway; the next, you're at The Book of Mormon.
It's all wild, wacky and sometimes way too shrill and breathless. It can make you long for even a tiny bit of subtlety. Just a smidgeon or two.
But that's not in the cards here -- and this show has ten Tony nominations to prove its street creds.
So, take a deep breath and hang on tight.
Rapid-fire direction. Superb cast. High-spirited insanity. That's Something Rotten.

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