The two Bottom brothers, Nick (Brian d’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani), are Elizabethan playwrights who find themselves overshadowed by William Shakespeare (Christian Borle). While Nigel mostly concerns himself with his newfound love for Portia (Kate Reinders), the daughter of a fire-and-brimstone Puritan (Brooks Ashmanskas), Nick goes to the local soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (Brad Oscar), to find out what’s next in the theater. Nostradamus advises him to write a play with songs, not because they advance plot or character, but because they are fun. However, his foresight is a little fuzzy, and when Nick asks about the play Shakespeare will be best remembered for, he conjures up images of ham, danishes, and other breakfast foods. Thus, Omelette: The Musical is born.
Something Rotten! is gleefully idiotic—in its first song, the Renaissance is essentially reduced to a time when lots of things were being invented and people wore “puffy pants and and pointy leather boots.” But it is charming, too, in its puerile sincerity. Where other Shakespeare-oriented works fail when they superficially reach for the highbrow, Something Rotten! succeeds because it allows itself to be unapologetically silly. Early on, the local moneylender (Gerry Vichi) tells Nick that he forgave Shakespeare’s debt in return for having a character named after him. “I can see it now,” he beams. “Shylock: The Really Nice Jew.” This isn’t exactly the kind of show that makes you feel smart for catching the references. Still, it has its more knowing moments as well. The lampooning of Puritans was a favorite device of Ben Jonson, for example, and the song “Will Power” recalls Shakespeare’s own tendency to pun on his name in the sonnets.
Mr. James and Mr. Cariani are likable enough as the Bottom brothers (though Nigel, full of stammering insecurity, is a mostly thankless role) but the real pleasure lies in the supporting characters. Mr. Borle’s Shakespeare combines Criss Angel with David Bowie, his liquid delivery full of self-congratulation and insincerity. “Aw, she’s bedazzled,” he says of a fan. “You like that word? I made it up, it’s what I do.” Mr. Oscar is also brilliant—there’s a bit of Max Bialystock in his guttural, vaudevillian performance—and his song “A Musical” is easily the highlight of the show.
There is something a little ingenious about taking the richest period in English literature and using it to write an ode to trashy entertainment. Something Rotten! is that rare piece of fluff that knows exactly where it stands while occasionally betraying an unexpected intelligence. Then again, sometimes it’s just funny. “Is that a bucket of shit?” Nick asks his wife, Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff), when she takes up a job to help support the family. “Bear shit, to be precise,” she responds proudly. “I’ve been promoted. This morning I didn’t have a bucket!”
Something Rotten! runs through January 1st at the St. James Theatre. 246 W. 44th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.