Review: 'Something Rotten!' is Fresh, Fun and Very Funny

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.”
― William ShakespeareHamlet

2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, the first-ever collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. A copy sold at auction in October of 2020 for $9,978,000, which is a lot, but not so bad when you factor in the free shipping. Still, it remains the most money ever paid for a work of literature. Shakespeare: people love the guy.

 That love is evident in Something Rotten!, the fizzy musical currently onstage at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. Its Shakespeare (Jake VanNeuren) has all the charisma and magnetism of a rock star; if the audience for his recitals doesn’t throw their undergarments onstage, it’s only because it would take so long to get them off, this being the Renaissance and all.

Everyone loves Shakespeare. Well, almost everyone. Nick Bottom (Joey Parks), a rival playwright, isn’t so much a fan; he’s trying to make his own way in the world, but how do you compete with the guy? It gets so bad that his wife, Bea (Noddea Skidmore), decides to get a job. And not, like, a fancy job. No, it’s the kind of job where you carry feces in a bucket.

Desperate, he consults the prophet Nostradamus (Matt Ablan). The prophet paints a picture of a future world: a world not of plays but of musicals. These, he assures Bottom, will be terrific. “You could go see a tragedy, but that wouldn’t be very fun,” he sings. “Or a play from Greek mythology. See a mother have sex with her son.” No: the future is musicals.

“A Musical” is a slyly meta song about the art form, throwing in references everything from Les Miserables to Seussical, and pulling in a sparkling, high-kicking ensemble. Ablan is as warm as a fleece jacket, and his enthusiasm is irresistible. Soon Bottom finds himself committed to the idea of writing a musical—and not only a musical, but a musical based on Shakespeare’s greatest work, a work he’s yet to write: a play called, Nostradamus is pretty sure, Omelet.

That’s the premise. You will not be surprised to hear that there are complications. They include a sub-plot which involves Nick’s brother, Nigel, falling in love with the daughter of a Protestant minister. Nigel is played with bashful charm by Jake Bieniewicz, who looks like John Mulvaney before the cocaine; his love interest, Portia, is played with confidence and great physicality by Ashley Isenhoff.

Here’s the thing: everyone’s good in this play. Noddea Skidmore’s great. That’s not shocking news for Grand Rapids audiences; still, her comic gifts, and her ability to convey optimism, joy, and inner strength should not be passed over without comment. Jake VanNeuren brings the magnetism of a rock star and the swagger of a Revue WM contributor. And Joey Parks never allows his character’s ambition and fear to occlude his inner decency.

The music is like ice cream: consistently enjoyable, although not something you’re likely to remember long after you’ve consumed it. The humor, effective at first, wears a little; how many musicals can you refer to, and how many codpiece jokes can you make? What lingers most is the sweetness of it all, particularly the story of Nigel and Portia, young lovers who manage not to stab or poison themselves.

Something Rotten! delivers exactly what it promises: a fun, funny, and accessible evening of entertainment. You don’t need to know much about Shakespeare to enjoy it (although you really should give him a shot; as the song says, “Don’t be a penis, the man is a genius”). I had a blast, as did my 10-year-old daughter, although I’m not sure she listened when I told her not to hear the naughty words. Actually, she’s singing, “God, I Hate Shakespeare” now. I take it all back. Down with Something Rotten!

Something Rotten!
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
April 28-May 21