After other such entertaining productions as School of Rock, Mary Poppins, and Once On This Island, the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre is finishing out their mainstage season with yet another musical: “Something Rotten!”
A nominee for the Tony Awards’ Best Musical in 2015, Something Rotten! is a musical farce with endless anachronistic quips revolving around its central antagonist: William Shakespeare. For two unknown, dissatisfied playwrights living in the 1590s, grasping fame means somehow escaping the shadow of this rockstar, The Bard himself.
“The central character, Nick, is trying to run a theatre, he’s trying to compete against the celebrity of his day, which in this case happens to be William Shakespeare,” said Bruce Tinker, executive director of Civic Theatre and director of Something Rotten!. “But he’s trying to survive, and he kind of goes out of his way to take a shortcut. The chaos that ensues from that, that’s where I don’t want to give too much away.”
Whether it’s getting entangled in conflict with the British authorities or a growing wave of judgemental Puritans, the story of Something Rotten! certainly twists and turns in ways you may not expect, and a variety of warring personalities amongst its eccentric cast of characters leads to the show’s memorable and hilariously unexpected finale.
“It really has fun with the concept of a musical,” Tinker said. “There are nonsensical parts of them. Some people can’t get past the fact that someone just stops and starts singing.”
Indeed, the absurdity of musical theatre itself is one of Something Rotten!’s major storylines. For the Bottom Brothers (Nick and Nigel), the popular markets of tragedy and romance seem to be monopolized by their great adversary, William Shakespeare. But, after seeking help from an unexpected source, Nick Bottom forms an epiphany on what the future of contemporary theatre may be: Musicals. And while Nick continues down his path toward usurping The Bard, his brother, Nigel, pursues a newfound love in the character Portia, a Puritan woman. Their duet, “I Love the Way”, is a funny, innuendo-filled love song, revealing each character’s deepest desire. Scenes likes these exhibit alarmingly direct humor that shares similarities with some of the best examples of musical comedy in the past 20 years, from The Producers to The Book of Mormon.
“One of our alums, Kate Reinders, initiated the role of Portia in the Broadway show, which is one of the principles,” Tinker said. “So anytime one of our Civic children is out there, we hear what their big project coming up is.”
While big, spectacular musical productions are a reliable commodity within Civic Theatre, their fondest supporters and passionate performers would likely agree that what makes the company special is this same trait: The lifelong community and bond Civic Theatre fosters. With hundreds of volunteers involved onstage, backstage, and right in their front box office lobby, this theatre truly enables the community its surrounded by to contribute toward wonderful, theatrical art.
“What’s remarkable about community theatre is these are your friends and neighbors, and they’re really good,” Tinker said. “They can sing, they can dance, they can act, and they can make you feel something. Because they’re really good.”
The result is a fine-tuned musical production with gut-busting segments of ridiculous dance breaks and group numbers, from a fun romp through The Black Death to William Shakespeare’s sonnet-filled rock song. And, while all of England seems enraptured by The Bard’s star power, Nick Bottom struggles to find his own way to the top. As he pushes away his ethics in favor of his own pride, the loved ones he’s surrounded by and their relationships with him are tested. Since Nick already sees himself as someone at the bottom, he’s willing to do anything to win.
“He tells his wife and his brother that they can’t help him, and he has to do everything himself,” Tinker said. “I think there’s a little message there, too. It pokes the bear of the misogyny that was rife in Elizabethan England at the time.”
Of course, this sort of misogyny in characters like Nick is one of the main ideas our heroes must understand and grow from throughout Something Rotten!, including other lessons around deceit and standing up against the ones you love.
“It modernizes the topics,” Tinker said. “There’s a lot of anachronism, which that’s okay, since there’s this great commentary and satire as a result of that. I think it’s highly entertaining, but it does have a few things to say.”
The musical’s madcap group numbers and raunchy one-liners will have you roaring in the seats and humming each song on your drive home.
“The memories are all based on the cast and crew, they’re all based on the volunteers,” Tinker said. “It’s an incredible experience when you get 20 to 60 people who have this event to share with their friends and neighbors, in the case of community theatre. It’s humbling to be a part of all that.” ν
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
30 N. Division Ave., Grand Rapids
April 28-May 21