SALT LAKE CITY – Welcome to the Renaissance of Something Rotten! Here Shakespeare is portrayed as glittery rock star where his groupies gather to sing back the opening soliloquy of Richard III. Who knew “now is the winter of our discontent” had such a ballad ring to it? Here is a Renaissance that illustrates the origin of names of such infamous characters as Shylock, Falstaff, and Portia. And all this delightful absurdity is performed beneath the banner of the watchful eyes of two of Shakespeare’s greatest advocates: naturally, Queen Elizabeth, and also the late and great Utah Shakespeare Festival founder Fred Adams. What a lovely homage!
With book by Karey KirkPatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne KirkPatrick, Something Rotten! first appeared on Broadway in 2015. Originally slated to premier at PTC in 2020, the pandemic delayed this showing nearly two years. But alas, this show is well worth the wait.
Something Rotten follows the story of the Bottoms brothers, Nick and Nigel, in their quest to overthrow notorious Shakespeare and become the greatest playwrights of their time. As this proves to be an impossible task, Nick enlists the assistance of a soothsayer. The soothsayer predicts that Shakespeare’s greatest hit will be Omelette, rather than Hamlet. The soothsaying also reveals that singing and dancing in something called a “musical” will be the theatre of the future. Nick and Nigel press on to create the great musical Omelette with the consultation of the soothsayer whose mix-ups do not end with the Omelette-Hamlet fiasco.
Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Karen Azenberg is at the helm of this tantalizing show. True to Pioneer form, Something Rotten! is presented with a live orchestra, exaggerated and colorful period costumes, and a detailed Tudor set with a Globe-style theater. The costume design by Patrick Holt mimicked the Elizabethan era, with a flamboyantly comical flare including cod pieces and extra puffy pants. One of the most impressive pieces of George Maxwell‘s set design was the Tudor theatre wall opening up into a concert stage, with smoke swirling as Shakespeare is announced as putting the “I am” in iambic pentameter.
While the show often alludes to Shakespeare and his work, musicals are referenced just as frequently (sometimes as subtlety as a brief piece of overture by the band). Additionally, the show is performed in the height of a full production musical with large ensemble numbers, tapping and dancing, and sweeping set movements. A favorite scene of mine is when Nick and Shakespeare argue while tapping up and down a set of stairs, the steps matching the cadence of their speech. While the show was fantastically executed, there were some mic issues sprinkled throughout that need to be fixed, I would expect not to see this issue at a professional theatre. Also, “A Musical” is an outstanding number with Robert Anthony Jones as Nostradamus the soothsayer. Jones as Nostradamus animatedly performs for Nick what a musical is, which then turns to a full ensemble effort riddled with great vocals, dancing, and myriad of references to musicals. This number, as well as the entire show, is full of energy and enthusiasm and the entire cast appears to be having fun. The exuberant cast coupled with the familiar references and fresh jokes left me smiling the entire evening.
While most musicals, especially comedies, have two or three catchy hits and a handful of filler songs, I found every number in Something Rotten! enjoyable musically and lyrically, while adding to the whole of the show. The lyrics are incredibly witty, and the entire cast delivers in the necessary frivolous and hilarious manner. For example, I loved what Azenberg did with “The Black Death,” the song first created by the Bottoms brothers when experimenting with the concept of the musical. While the song is uproarious as-is, adding the surgical type masks and dancing virus particles added to the effect.
Matt Farcher as Nick Bottom had such a marvelously rich and commanding singing voice, which was perfect as he was the naysayer against Shakespeare’s glory, as well as doubter of the concept of the musical. As the flippant rockstar William Shakespeare, Matthew Hydzik gives a memorable performance. In Something Rotten!, William Shakespeare is basically the antagonist and is an over-the-top egotist; despite my reverent love for Shakespeare, Hydzik won me over as an entertaining and charming villain. In the end, his was my favorite performance. Particularly in “Hard to be a Bard,” Hydzik has a satisfying haughty swagger, while singing and dancing about the woes of being Shakespeare. “Make an Omlette” is also a ridiculously notable number, but that is an indescribable spectacle that one must see for themselves, and I hope that everyone does.
While Something Rotten does have some somewhat esoteric references to Shakespeare and other musicals, ubiquitous pop culture also abounds. This isn’t just a show for ardent theatre lovers. In fact, theatre haters may also enjoy this show as it so comically gibes at the pretention of Shakespeare and superfluousness of musicals. Something Rotten! is a must-see and has joined the ranks as one of my favorite musical comedies.