PERRY — Sometimes I find myself feeling nostalgic for the 90s: a simpler time when we weren’t all tied to our phones like we are now, the music was excellent, and I was free to watch whatever I wanted until I could quote much of pop culture by heart. Something Rotten! takes us back to England in the 90s—the 1590s—when new innovations were happening (flushing toilets, frozen food, and tobacco) and the biggest rock star in town was the one, the only, The Bard, William Shakespeare. For anyone who is a fan of musical theatre and/or Shakespeare, this play offers a feast of nostalgia that is a little sickly sweet and might leave you with a stomach ache from laughing so hard.
This musical comedy opened on Broadway in 2015 with a book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick and music and lyrics by Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick. The scene is set from the first note sung by Minstrel (Justin Beecher) as a Pythoneque Renaissance England where the hapless Bottom brothers, Nick (Matthew Kennedy) and Nigel (Spencer Debenham), are determined to make a name for themselves in the theatre. Nick is particularly fed up with living in the shadow of the cocky William Shakespeare (Tyler O’Bagy), who peacocks about like a rock star after his smashing Romeo and Juliet has taken London by storm. Nick decides to enlist the help of a soothsayer (Brock Cheney) to help him figure out what Shakespeare’s next hit will be and discovers musical theater.
The three male leads were all phenomenal in this production and surrounded by a strong ensemble. Debenham’s character, Nigel, is the younger brother of the two. Nigel moons for his new found love, the beautiful and innocent Portia (Ellie Jensen), who is unfortunately the daughter of Brother Jeremiah, the Puritan leader. Debenham is natural and sincere in his poetry reading, and the two young lovers have great chemistry on stage from the moment they are struck by love at first sight. I enjoyed their harmony and playfulness, as well as the sizable number of double entendre, as they explored young love together.
The older brother, Nick Bottom portrayed by Kennedy, was very funny as he moaned and grumbled about his rival in, “God, I Hate Shakespeare.” Kennedy showed excellent comedic timing and had a strong voice that could carry the show along from beginning to ridiculous end. Nick’s wife, Bea (Megan Worthen Nelson), was my favorite actress. Her mature voice and bearing was excellent in, “Right Hand Man.” As a proto-feminist supporting her family, Bea showed how strong and funny women are and made me wish there were more fleshed out female characters in the script.
Certainly, the best character actor of the production was O’Bagy’s caricature of William Shakespeare. It reminded me of Paul Bettany’s Chaucer from A Knight’s Tale, Mike Myer’s Austin Powers, and Billy Idol in his prime, all rolled together into very tight leopard-print pants. I was impressed by how fully O’Bagy radiated an over-the-top confidence and sex appeal of the role while keeping his accent consistent and nailing the songs.
The ensemble of actors supporting the leads was large and impressive. There were a lot of fun moments for each, but they all sang and danced well together. Co-directors Shannon Cheney and Jena Barber use the smaller stage of the Heritage well throughout the show and keep the tempo of the musical going at a fast pace. The production was at its inspired best during the big, splashy dance numbers. The choreography of Jensen was clean and impressive. This show had a large number of dance breaks called for in the script, and this production delivered them incredibly well for a community theater production. When the comic invention of the script was wearing thin, the staging pulled out all the stops. When the audience is shouting and cheering for another kick line, you know that what the show is doing is working.
The most impressive technical element might be the costume design by Shannon Cheney. I was impressed by the number of costume changes that were called for and the design and feel of each one. Not only did the cast have to wear their Elizabethan garb, but the ensemble was constantly changing into big musical flashy dance costumes. The costume design for Shakespeare and his dungeon full of male sycophants was interesting and humorous and made the song, “Hard to Be the Bard,” even better.
I truly had a wonderful night full of laughs. The Heritage took a bold risk by bringing in a new and unknown play to the area, and I think that they have put on an amazing production that is worth seeing. My only problems with the production are more cautions for theatre goers on the script. This script is theatre written by theatre people, for theatre people. The script pulls references from all of musical theatre and Shakespeare and is hilarious about it. Unfortunately, that means if you aren’t a musical theatre fan and have no idea what “Shapoopie” or “chim-chimney” refer to, or you never even read the cliff notes to Hamlet, you could be lost. The writing is not the stuff of legends, but it certainly plays off of all the writing that is. And if the laughs aren’t coming from references, they are often sophomoric jokes about being a closet gay zealot, premature ejaculation, or poop. The jokes are funny, but it sure ain’t Shakespeare.
Something Rotten! will probably never earn a prominent place in theater history, but it is a night full of laughs. Heritage constantly delights me when I attend plays there as the quality of vocals and performances are superb. The joy of doing live musical theatre is palpable in the air, and Something Rotten! does offer something new to audiences that will remind many musical lovers why they’d rather sit through a hilarious parody of musical theatre than cry during a serious production of Hamlet. No offence to The Bard, but sometimes it can be fun to watch a dance break that does nothing to advance the plot but sure brings a smile to the face and makes you laugh out loud.