13 November 2015

Something Rotten: Shakespearean satire which sadly falls flat


Something Rotten, St. James Theatre, New York, NY

What to see, as a Londoner in New York with one night to spare? Using an utterly random set of criteria (new, not on in the West End, no difficulty finding seats), I ended up at Something Rotten, a show helpfully described to me as “a musical that’s kind of like a riff on Shakespeare”. As a huge fan of both musicals and Shakespeare, I was sold. Sadly, I probably chose too soon.

Something Rotten, conceived by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, feels like it was workshopped at a college am-dram club. The plot is simple: brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani) are trying to write a hit show, but all anyone wants is more Shakespeare. Nick pays soothsayer Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) to predict what the future of theatre will look like, and discovers the concept of musicals, leading him to produce a musical about an omelette (yes, it’s a pun on Hamlet, no, it doesn’t work better onstage). Meanwhile Shakespeare himself (Christian Borle) swans around as a Tudor rockstar, Nigel falls in one-second-theatre-love with a Puritan maiden called Portia (Kate Reinders), and everyone learns to tap-dance.

This show requires not only familiarity with Shakespeare’s writing if it is to make any sense, but also extensive knowledge of the history of musical theatre. There are moments where this works beautifully, such as Shakespeare singing “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” at an outdoor rock concert to a crowd of adoring fans. Most of the time, however, it doesn’t. Nostradamus’ glimpse into the future provides an exceedingly weak premise for an hour and a half of Broadway nostalgia, as the cast tries to allude to every musical ever written. As a musical theatre nerd, I got 90 percent of the references to Cats, Annie, The Sound Of Music and Fiddler On The Roof, but the jokes still felt tired and overdone. I wanted to see something new – what I got was The Reduced Shakespeare Company meets Book of Mormon, with none of the latter’s self-restraint.

There were moments of comedic flair. The opening number, Welcome To The Renaissance, is entertaining and high-energy, rhyming “pewter” with “Tudor” and featuring anachronistic but amusing characters like John Webster and Thomas Middleton. Nostradamus’ showstopper A Musical is a piece of theatrical brilliance for the first five minutes (and a disappointment for the next five). And Christian Borle plays the role of Shakespeare to perfection, with a Hugh Grant accent and the tightest trousers I have ever seen.

But everything else is a let-down. Musicals are meant to be hammy, over-the-top and utterly implausible. That is the joy of them. But what saves a great show, whether a classic like West Side Story or a new venture like Matilda, is its heart, as it portrays emotions with such beauty and earnestness that the audience is carried away.

Heart, unfortunately, is exactly what Something Rotten lacks. Though I tried my best to identify with the characters – frustrated Nick struggling to write a hit, romantic Nigel who wants to be true to his creative integrity, innocent Portia who hides a secret lust for poetry – the script deliberately makes this impossible. The cast are caricatures of themselves, and, like the show as a whole, they all skip straight to spoof, without bothering to gain the audience’s sympathy first. Kate Reinders plays Portia as a hackneyed cross between Glinda from Wicked and Elle from Legally Blonde, but without the wit or charm of either, and it was disappointing to see this extremely talented performer working with such one-dimensional material. John Cariani’s Nigel is not much better. Brian d’Arcy James is a superb tap-dancer, as is everyone else, but dance breaks weren’t enough to save this show.

In the end, there’s a problem if the performers are clearly having more fun than the audience. It was painfully apparent that everyone in the creative team thought this show was a work of pure genius, that mixing Shakespeare with musicals was a new and edgy idea (it really isn’t – try Kiss Me Kate), and that jokes about premature ejaculation were the height of sophistication. While I can’t fault the choreography, the songs were nothing special, with forgettable melodies and lyrics that had some clever rhymes but failed to convey anything real. If a show has no plot, no character development, no heart and an underwhelming score, there really isn’t that much left. It takes work to pull off a successful satire, but Something Rotten was too busy laughing at itself to notice that it was self-indulgent and ineffective.

So for Brits who want to discover the magic of Broadway, this isn’t the show to do it. Try An American in Paris instead. It may not be anything new, but a well-executed classic beats a mediocre parody any day.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.