“Something Rotten!” is fun for musical aficionados

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"Something Rotten" photo by Jeremy Daniel

Theatre review

Something Rotten! has a screwy idea at its core. It’s 1595, and William Shakespeare (Matthew Baker) is a rock star of the Elizabethan theatre. This is bad news for the Bottom brothers, actor/director Nick (Matthew Michael Janisse) and writer Nigel (Richard Spitaletta). Seeking a way to quick success, Nick consults soothsayer Thomas Nostradamus (Greg Kalafatas) for an idea of what the next big thing in theatre will be. “A musical,” says Nostradamus. Nick is incredulous at first, but he is soon convinced. After asking Nostradamus what Shakespeare’s greatest play will be, Nick is ready to create a sure-fire hit musical entitled “Omelette.” Yet all is not well in London’s theatre-land. Nick’s wife Bea (Emily Kristen Morris), disguised as a man, is taking jobs to help with the family income. Nigel and the beautiful Puritan maiden Portia (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith) fall in love. Moneylender Shylock (Peter Surace) wants to invest in Nick’s production. Portia’s father Jeremiah (Mark Saunders) wants to shut down the theatres entirely. And Shakespeare, himself stuck for a new plot, wants to steal Nigel’s notebook of themes and ideas for new plays.

This energetic cast performs a genuinely funny show

Yes, it’s screwy. It’s also funny and entertaining, with hijinks and low humor, singing and dancing, a little romance, and lessons on the price of fame and the value of family. At heart, it’s a valentine to the musical theatre, and the audience fell in love with it.

What made all this fun was the gleeful way the creators — co-author John O’Farrell, co-author and lyricist Karey Kirkpatrick, and composer Wayne Kirkpatrick — scattered bits and pieces of actual Broadway musicals throughout the show. This was especially noticeable in the first-act production number “A Musical,” Nostradamus’ explanation of the form. It was also there in “Make an Omelette,” the big number in Nick’s show. Fans of musicals got a kick identifying the real shows from which these musical phrases come from. Fans of Shakespeare had fun picking out lines and names from the Bard’s works. And audiences in general enjoyed an energetic cast performing a genuinely funny show.

Original Broadway director Casey Nicholaw put the entire cast through its paces brilliantly. Among the principles, the strongest performances came from Emily Kristin Morris, with her big number “Right Hand Man” sung first humorously and later lovingly, and Richard Spitaletta’s lovestruck poet, with his best number being the short, sweet “To Thine Own Self.” In smaller roles, Devin Holloway provided musical fun as the Minstrel while Drew Arisco added humor as Peter, an actor just a bit too fond of his dresses. Scott Pask’s sets were a bit more lavish than the usual standard for touring musicals at the State Theatre, and Gregg Barnes’ costumes were splendidly medieval when they weren’t being Broadway-flashy in the big numbers or, for Shakespeare, blending Renaissance with rock idol bad boy.

The show was fun and bouncy, appealing to the large audience on opening night. Unfortunately, most musicals performed at the State Theatre last only two or three days. Unless you want to make the trip up to New Haven, Connecticut at the end of November, you won’t get the chance to have a perfectly good time at a show that does not live up to its name — Something Rotten! Information about the tour can be found at worklightproductions.com/current-work/something-rotten.

Something Rotten! was presented at the State Theatre in New Brunswick on November 2-3, 2018. The next productions in the State Theatre’s Broadway season will be Cirque Dreams Holidaze, playing December 7-9, and The King and I, playing December 14-15. For tickets and information, visit STNJ.org/Broadway.