Nick Bottom, the Tudor-era hero of Something Rotten!, has a question that today's theatergoers may also have wondered about from time to time: What's with all the Shakespeare?
Four centuries after the Bard's death, he remains by far and away the world's most-produced playwright. Isn't it time to give someone else a turn? Of course, today Shakespeare has a distinct advantage that the penny-pinched Nick would appreciate: He's royalty-free.
At the turn of the 17th century, this musical posits, Shakespeare's competitors had to contend with a preening heartthrob, a rock star with a quill. In the touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre, this god among men is played by original Rent star Adam Pascal, although capable understudy Daniel Beeman went on Tuesday night. Similarly, Scott Cote swapped in for Rob McClure in the role of Nick.
Something Rotten! contrasts its cartoonish Shakespeare with a pair of underdog wannabes. Nick and his brother Nigel (Josh Grisetti) are scribes in need of a hit: Nick is a family man whose aspiring-actor wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) will soon be in the family way, and Nigel is pursuing a romance with a Puritan lass (Autumn Hurlbert) whose loins are lit by a good sonnet.
Desperate, Nick turns to a soothsayer named Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), whose power outstrips his precision. Nick comes away with some sketchy details about the play that will become Shakespeare's ultimate calling card, as well as with the insight that the future of the popular stage is musical. Nick and Nigel whip up a farcical facsimile of Hamlet, while Shakespeare dons a disguise to keep an eye on what his rivals are up to.
The show's momentum peaks in the middle of act one, as Nostradamus lays on the razzle-dazzle to demonstrate to the skeptical Nick that random dance interludes and songs that come out of nowhere will one day delight audiences. Something Rotten! never quite lives up to the promise of that sublime spoof, although the Bottoms ultimately do produce an amiably ludicrous entertainment that incorporates the soothsayer's random flashes of prescience about singing phantoms and adorable orphans and finger-snapping street gangs.
What Something Rotten! has, more than anything, to recommend it are the fleet and facile songs of brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, who conceived the 2015 show. Not a word is wasted in the rapid-fire, precisely rhymed lyrics: You'll want to cue up the soundtrack to catch the quips you missed. The consistent quality of the songs and script (written by Karey Kirkpatrick with John O'Farrell) lifts Something Rotten! above the level of the average Broadway show, and the touring cast strike the right tone of amiable exasperation.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw also worked on The Book of Mormon and Spamalot, but Something Rotten! stops well short of the inspired absurdity of Monty Python or Book of Mormon's bold provocations. Mel Brooks is the most obvious touchpoint, but love him or hate him, when Brooks makes a Nazi joke, he really makes a Nazi joke. The Kirkpatricks merely content themselves with goofy misunderstandings. That feels like a missed opportunity...but in Broadway as in baseball, sometimes it's safer just to bunt.