Playwrights today are probably grateful they don't have to actively compete with someone of William Shakespeare's caliber. It goes without saying that he is considered one of the greatest playwrights of all time. He wrote everything from comedies like Merchant of Venice to tragedies like Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. To this day, centuries after they were first performed, theaters across the world are still performing his work.
But what about the playwrights that did compete directly with Shakespeare? How tough would that have been to constantly find yourself going head-to-head with The Bard himself? According to Something Rotten! it would have been really, really tough. And really, really funny.
The musical begins in London, 1595, brought to life by scenic designer Scott Pask and the show’s opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance.” Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom, played by the immensely talented duo of Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti, respectively, find themselves in the very predicament I mentioned.
Sick of losing out to Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), and not having a hit play, Nick decides he’s going to do something about it, so he heads to the local soothsayer (Blake Hammond) hoping to find out what the next big thing in theater will be. Hammond tells him the future of theater will have lots of singing, dancing and acting at the same time. The Bottom brothers then set out to write the world’s first musical.
The show’s book, music and lyrics were written by three men with no prior Broadway credits to their name. John O’Farrell, one of the U.K.’s best-known comic authors and script writers, wrote the book with Karey Kirkpatrick, who also wrote the music and lyrics with his brother, Wayne Kirkpatrick. The trio might not have had any Broadway experience, but Something Rotten! has more musical theater references than anything I’ve ever seen, especially during the Act I number, “A Musical,” which is a six minute tour-de-force and love letter to musical theater.
Everything people hold near and dear about the genre is covered in this song, from the sailor hats worn in reference to musicals like Anything Goes and South Pacific to Bob Fosse’s jazz hands to the infamous scene in A Chorus Line where they line up with their head shots. There’s also a moment that references the landmark 1996 musical Rent, which gets extra laughs considering one of its original cast members is playing Shakespeare.
Speaking of Pascal, he is one of the show’s immediate stand-outs as soon as he enters. Shakespeare is treated like a rock god, with women and men fawning over everything he says and does, and Pascal chews up the scenery in the best way, especially during his Act II solo, “Hard to Be the Bard.” Costume designer Gregg Barnes’ addition of elaborate jackets and exaggerated codpieces help add to the rock star feel.
Actually, there are a lot of secondary characters who are hard to forget, like Autumn Hurlbert’s Portia, Nigel’s star-crossed love interest. Hurlbert is probably the strongest vocalist of the group and her voices soars every time she gets to sing. She’s also really, really funny. Same goes for Hammond as Thomas Nostradamus, the nephew of the infamous Nostradamus. One of the show’s funniest bits is him yelling out one or two words about future hit musicals, like “Hair!” and “Cats!” followed by everyone looking at him like he’s lost it. If only they knew what the future of musicals would hold.
And dancing has always been a huge part of musicals. The show’s director and choreographer (who has directed and choreographed Broadway musicals like Aladdin and The Book of Mormon) Casey Nicholaw plays into that, with numbers often having long dance breaks and a cast that is up for the task and could go step-for-step against some of Broadway’s biggest musicals.
Yes, Shakespeare will probably always be a huge deal in the theater world. But the Kirkpatrick brothers and O’Farrell — plus the rest of the cast and creative team — show you don’t necessarily have to be Shakespeare to have a delightful, hilarious hit on your hands.
Cobb Great Hall
750 E. Shaw Ln., East Lansing