Thursday, April 5, 2018

Something Rotten Smells Just Fine

What is the real difference between a copy and a spoof? 


Photo by Jeremy Daniel

My chef and I had a debate about this after seeing Something Rotten, the current Broadway tour resident at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. To my mind, a copy is directly lifting something - be it a plot, music, lyrics, etc. - from another artist and trying to pass it off as your own (aka: plagiarism). A spoof, however, pays homage to the original and acknowledges it for what it is, while infusing it with new meaning by placing it in a different context.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

If we trust these definitions, then Something Rotten is a masterful cadre of spoofs on all of theater's most sacred cows, beginning with Shakespeare and ending with the modern moneymaker that is the musical genre. It imagines a world in which Shakespeare is a rock star but low on ideas and steals from his rivals who are hoping to achieve a fraction of the fame he has. The most notable of these are a pair of brothers (Nick and Nigel), who had hired Shakespeare as an actor long before his playwright fame and who are bitter with envy at his success. Nick is particularly obsessed with taking Shakespeare down - so obsessed that he carts his family's life savings to a soothsayer to steal what will be Shakespeare's most successful idea.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The soothsayer gets a lot right, but unfortunately not in the right order - so Hamlet becomes Omelette and musicals are brought to the sixteenth century in tourettes-style fashion and a jumble of plots. Nigel wants to write original work but it's not enough for Nick, and the two grapple with the difference between authentic and copy, innovation and familiar tropes, and all sorts of otherwise heavy artistic questions with a light touch. As they do so, Something Rotten wanders through what is essentially a history of musicals, touching on almost all of them and throwing some solid jabs at the ubiquitous nature of Shakespeare's reputation for good measure. Puritans are given the Hairspray treatment in some inspired religious caricatures (especially in "We See the Light"); Shakespeare's fanboys are re-imagined as an 80's style rock band a la Queen in "Hard to Be the Bard;" and in the best traditions of satires like Monty Python or South Park, Something Rotten delightfully skewers purity in all senses with a wink and a chasse.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Unfortunately, the day I attended included a robust April snowstorm, so the two main draws - Adam Pascal and Rob McClure - were unable to perform. While disappointing, I'd like to emphasize for the people in the back (who were heard grumbling at intermission): this is *literally* what understudies are for, and I thought the two who filled in - Daniel Beeman as Shakespeare and Scott Cote as Nick, respectively - really gave it their all. Cole's performance reminded me so much of what I love about Nathan Lane, and he really mastered the aura of a charming ignoramus, especially in songs like "God, I Hate Shakespeare." Beeman has the swagger and heavy eyeliner to take his punky character all the way through, and he was rocking his best Freddy Mercury from the moment he stepped out in "I Love the Way." Josh Grisetti was surprisingly lyrical as the poet Nigel and delivered a couple of swoon-worthy moments in tunes like "To Thine Own Self."

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

But interestingly enough, the real rock stars in this show for me were the women in supporting roles. Maggie Lakis was sharp and pointed as Nick's wife Bea. She really owned the idea of latent feminism Tudor-style, and I got such a kick out of watching her swagger her way through a woman in disguise. And Autumn Hurlbert absolutely nailed it as Portia, the wayward Puritan who dreams of becoming a poet (and later Nigel's love interest). Hurlbert has the staggering charisma and vivacious delivery of a new Kristin Chenoweth, and I predict she's going to be a star - watch out for her on future Broadway stages! The company at large delivers several fun tap dances and a cheery delivery, and they more than warmed up the stage for a snowy evening.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The sets for the most part reminded me of simple painted backdrops; they gave a two dimensional effect, and the generally simple props kept things easy as well. The real standout to me were the inventive costumes, which were a riotously modern take on Tudor-style wear. Dancers flounce around their farthingales like the most confident Naomi Campbell; women are sexed up in a Betsey Johnson-style take on Tudor clothes with hi-low hems and corsets galore; men strut their stuff in lilac tights with the breeches to match, and the codpiece is used in a myriad of creative ways. Curled wigs, punked out ruffs, and a host of creative facial hair flash through the performance, and it's seriously fun to watch.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I'll be honest about Something Rotten: I think the concept is absolutely genius, but the music itself wasn't my favorite - the orchestration seemed a little lackluster. That being said, it's got several really funny moments (all hail "A Musical"), and the audience clearly loved it from start to finish. This is a perfect show for true theater lovers: most of the fun is in hunting for the nuggets of references to various plays, and the creative ways each reference is woven into the larger story are really impressive. Something Rotten is a great example of the benefits of looking at history with fresh eyes and making it less serious. If you've never been much of a Shakespeare fan or you find the idea of musicals just a little crazy, this is a show you'll really enjoy. Something Rotten runs through April 8, so make sure to snap up your tickets soon if you want a chance to see it; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel