I had the great pleasure of seeing the deliriously silly and subversively sly Something Rotten at the St. James Theatre in NYC with theatre majors from SUNY New Paltz on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. It was a perfect group with whom to attend, and proved that they were paying attention in Western Drama and Theatre History. This show is a theatre-goer’s guilty pleasure, with a dizzying number of ridiculous references (both musical and literary) to dozens of musicals and nearly the entire Shakespeare canon, not to mention nods to the great writers of the Elizabethan era from Kyd to Spencer—I kid you not. I think the creative team may have left out Two Noble Kinsmen and Panama Hattie—but it’s not for want of trying! The most apt phrase I can think of to describe this show is an old saw I first heard years ago from a fellow cast member (Beatta Baker) of another silly show (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom)—“talent borrows, genius steals.” If this be the truth about art, and especially theatre, then Something Rotten borders on near-genius. And I hope it plays on and on!
First, the cast is uniformly excellent, displaying a serious adeptness at comedic performing, musical expression, and (believe it or not), in one very particular case, simple truthful moment-to-moment playing of much heart and depth. Like everything else in the show, the plot is an utter contrivance (albeit quite a clever one), and the references/ allusion/ homages come fast and furiously. Testing audience members’ theatre knowledge by naming the play or musical from which a bit of music, dance or book comes would make a great intermission game, like the Opera Quiz at the Met.
Michael James Scott (Minstrel) ushers us into the world of the play with “Welcome to the Renaissance”—which calls to mind pretty much every narrative introduction ever, from “Tradition” (Fiddler on the Roof) to “Good Morning, Baltimore” (Hairspray) to “Welcome to Greece” (Olympus on My Mind—full disclosure–another show I was in, and I’m guessing the authors probably don’t know this show—there are few of us who do!) In a typical, borderline offensive bit of stereotyping, Mr. Scott, who is African American, channels Leading Player (Pippin) and adds all the musical riffs and flourishes that musicals have been stealing in their colonial way from authentic ethnic musical expression for, well, ever. But, and here’s the point, James’ performance and the material itself, transcends the stereotyping by first cheerfully acknowledging it, and then by the supreme joy with which it is performed, and how effectively the material is rendered by the authors. There is nothing new under the sun, as we all know—vanity of vanity, all is vanity. Except when it isn’t vanity–it’s love.
We continue in this vein, introduced to the pro and ant-agonists of the play, which more or less concerns the search by the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel (Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, respectively), to come up with a hit show for their struggling company of actors. I won’t trouble you with the plot beyond reporting that it involves
- A sooth-sayer (reference to Forum, and played deliciously by Brad Oscar—himself a reference to another, but different kind of musical spoof, The Producers—which the creative team unapologetically exploit, to the great delight of theatre insiders).
- A Puritan (repressing his homosexual urges, in another borderline offensive but pretty hilarious portrayal by the extremely gifted, precise, and utterly economical Peter Bartlett)
- The Puritan’s daughter and Nigel’s love interest, played and sung with panache by Kate Reinders (reminding me most of the role of Ruby in another spoof—Dames at Sea)
- Shakespeare—a star turn by Christian Borle, who is a combination of Conrad Birdie, Cornie Collins, Mack the Knife, Ché, a dash of Franklin Shepherd and Georges (second act of Sunday in the Park) and (apparently) a post-rehab Brittany Spears.
The central figures are the Bottom brothers, beautifully embodied by Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, with crucial supporting work provided by Nicke’s wife, Bea, played by the terrifically talented and hilarious Heidi Blickenstaff. Nigel is the younger brother and main writer, and functions as both the timorous young inamorata and the pure (if naïve) artistic soul. Cariani is cute, cuddly and very amusing, as he recalls Romeo, Valentine (2Gents), Claudius (Much Ado), Berowne (LLL); Tony (WSS), Hugo (Birdie), Hero (Forum), Hunter ([Title of Show]), etc. His performance also nods to all those Neil Simon characters with weird conditions and possibly a spoof (also borderline offensive) of the lead character in The Curious Incident… now on Broadway. Anyway, that’s what I got. The near-genius of these characters and characterizations is that they are cyphers—you see in them what you bring to them. All the musical, literary, and mythic flotsam and jetsam in my mind is activated by the meta-theatrical referencing that continues non-stop during the performance. Blickenstaff’s “Bea” references all the hardy helpmeets common in musical theatre, from Rosemary (H2$) to Dot (Sunday), as well as Portia (not to be confused with the character “Portia” in the show played by Kate Reinders), Rosalind, and Imogen (Cymbeline—“I see a man’s life is a tedious one”). I wish this character was a bit more than helpful, however. I would have liked to see some Lady Macbeth and Janet Van De Graffe thrown in, not to mention Carole Burnett. “Bea” is a pants role—in that she not only wears them actually, but also within her relationship to Nick. In terms of character antecedents, she really is along the lines of Alice to Nick’s Ralph Cramden—but this is not quite fully worked out (see more below).
In fact, more than anything, the subtextual references in the production are to the golden age of television and 70s sitcom. The entire show is like a long sketch from the Carole Burnett show and recalls (to my mind anyway) the fabulous Gone with the Wind spoof. Even the orchestrations, masterfully rendered by Larry Hochman and arranged by Glen Kelly, harken to a kind of 70s vibe from the Tonight Show to Bob Newhart—a kind of brassy, vaguely disco funk horn sound (along with the dozens of references to musicals, not to mention some outright thievery). However, this is not to suggest that at its heart it IS a sketch or a sitcom—far from it. Think more like Robin Williams’ voicing of “Genie” in Aladdin and you’ll be closer to the mark.
At the heart of the show, carrying it in more ways than one, however, is Brian d’Arcy James’ performance as Nick Bottom. As I mentioned above, Nick is a kind of Ralph Cramden, but without the spousal abuse. He also is a kind of Walter Mitty, dreaming of success in fantasy sequences, first in the truly inspire “A Musical” musical number, and then the act one finale, “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top.” But at bottom, Nick is most especially like the original Bottom from AMSND. At first, I wanted more of the pomposity for which the character is known, but thinking about 70s sitcom, James’ Bottom brings more to mind Barney Miller or Bob Newhart—the one (relatively) sane man among the real nuts (in this case, actors and writers—go figure). Like Cramden, Nick has big dreams and schemes, but really, it’s all in service to his friends and family. He hasn’t got much—not much wit, not much talent, no money–but he’s got DESIRE, born a bit out of envy (of Shakespeare), but more out of something more important and really more central to what story the play is telling—how we recover from abandonment. James delivers a performance that is so transparent and plaintive, so open and generous, it’s easy to miss how truly remarkable, skillful and deep it really is.
There are a few things that do not fully succeed. The role of Shakespeare is cute, Borle is very skilled and funny (and also very ripped—that boy’s been working out!) and I enjoyed the idea that he stole all he wrote. This is an old and amusing academic argument that could have been much more richly explored. But, the character is not really necessary. Shakespeare isn’t the antagonist—not truly. It’s the world (see Susanne Langer’s brilliant analysis of comedy in Feeling and Form). I couldn’t help but think that once they cast Borle, it obligated the authors to write him some good numbers—and why the hell not?! He delivers them expertly. But the show don’t need ‘em. While the choreography is also cheerfully zany and fairly inventive, the staging of the book scenes is the total opposite. They’re just not that funny. Everything else in the play references other plays and musicals. The book scenes are written that way, but they are not staged that way. This is a pretty big missed opportunity, in my view. Too many character upstage themselves—and this can only be the director’s choice. Too many scenes are far too static. I get that there needs to be some break from the breakneck pace of the rest of the show, but that doesn’t mean the show should grind to an unimaginative halt. Sorry, but it’s true. Second, the writing goes awry in the second act when they abandon Nick’s arc. Near the crises, when Nick’s relentless, but really under-motivated, clinging to the prophecy (to create Omelet, the Musical—don’t even. All I’ll say is that Gregg Barnes literally cooks up some hilarious costumes), results in a breach between the brothers (“To Thine Own Self”). But instead of a scene between Nick and Bea, in which Bea should call upon Nick’s true self, there is a misguided scene between Bea and Nigel, which results in extending the crises (and in my view, unnecessarily). The real motivation here seems to be to allow for a really really silly number from the musical within the musical. It’s zany, inspired (costumes, as mentioned), but it violates the journey of the play, moves the center from Nick, and requires a kind of deus ex machina in reverse to reveal Nick’s betrayal of his ideals in front of Bea, Nigel and the troupe of actors. Doesn’t work well, and could have been resolved in a much different way. But we end up in court (like The Producers) and miss an opportunity to get a good speech for Bea (playing Portia, disguised as a lawyer, not a judge—but never mind) about the quality of mercy. Perhaps if the show had gone to Seattle instead of straight to New York, this might have been fixed. But, it isn’t a deal breaker and since so much that has gone before was so good, it’s easy to forgive and forget.
Some of you may have read the review in the Times. Here’s what Brantley misses. The show isn’t really trying to BE The Producers or Book of Mormon, or Hairspray—it is merely ruthlessly exploiting that material for a different end. Comparisons to those shows miss the point. Far more apt is a comparison to [Title of Show], but it’s ambition is larger than that (as Nick states he desires for his own show), larger than, “I want to put on a show about my struggle to put on a show.” Abandoned as a child, with only his brother for family, he never knows who he truly is—so he has spent his life (and life savings) assuming roles to find the right fit and writing plays to find the right hit. This, I argue, is the central pre-occupation of American theater over the last hundred or so years. This is a country of displaced people, whether natives forced off the land, immigrant seeking haven, slaves transported here against their will, or even the rich seeking greener pastures. From O’Neil to Williams to Miller, from Hurston to Hansberry, from Hammerstein to Hart to Sondheim, from Comden & Greene to Tessori—arguable more than anything else American theater has been about how we try to recover from abandonment. In Something Rotten, even Shakespeare is an American, riddled with anxiety and recovering from a mother (embodied by a writing quill) who ridiculed his talent and abandoned him emotionally. Like all artists, Nick (and everyone else in the show) is searching for authenticity, for his true voice. But that is mission impossible. There IS nothing new under the sun, everything has already been written or said or sung or danced. All you actually have is your own story—and even that isn’t very original. In what is a very sly little dig our own country, the gang of central characters end up in America—the home of the bravely derivative. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then America and Americans are the sine qua non, the non pareil of the sincere. This is exactly why Brian d’Arcy James is EXACTLY right for the role of Nick. Brian EXUDES sincerity—you just believe everything he says. Nick’s not even a good liar. Although he is named for the notorious Bottom of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream—he’s not the bombastic Pyramus-playing blowhard that many have portrayed him as. He is the ass transformed by love, trying to sincerely offer, within his very limited abilities, the only gift he can give—his true self, for better for worse. And we all know that it is not the gift of gold, frankincense or myhrr that is most valuable, but rather the modest, but utterly sincere and fully given gift of self that is the true treasure. Brian, through Nick, gives us his heart. And we are all transformed by this gift.
Go see it. Just for fun. But you might be surprised by how much more you will get.