The new musical “Something Rotten!,” which opened Wednesday at the St. James Theatre in New York, offers something rare, as well as something recycled.
The something rare is the opportunity for no fewer than three leading men to astonish us in entirely different ways. As is often the case, the devil in the group dominates, even though Christian Borle‘s Shakespeare as rock star has the least stage time. Book writers Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell create something original here, and Borle pulls off the rare feat of appearing simultaneously sexy and ridiculous as the Bard who rips off “Hamlet” from a Renaissance nobody named Nigel Bottom. As that timid genius, John Cariani makes adorable totally arresting when he puts up the good fight not to turn his masterpiece into a musical called “Omelette,” which pits him against his very determined, very dense producer-brother, Nick Bottom (Brian d’Arcy James), who wonders why the Bard isn’t just “a bard.”
It’s rare that at least one of these gifted comedians isn’t on stage; when two or all three of them converge, it’s musical nirvana. Kudos to director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw for making that happen.
Nicholaw is arguably Broadway’s hottest director-choreographer, and the success of “Something Rotten!” should only enhance that status. He had a major breakthrough choreographing “Spamalot,” and most recently choreographed and directed the megahits “The Book of Mormon” and “Aladdin,” among other shows. As with “Spamalot” and “Aladdin” (we’ll get to “Mormon” later), “Rotten” appears to be part of Nicholaw’s ongoing mission in the theater to bring “Forbidden Broadway” to Broadway. The long-running Off Broadway revue satirizes popular current musicals, and Nicholaw expands on that premise in his work by also sending up popular old musicals.
Which is where “Something Rotten!” turns into something recycled. “Omelette” tells the story of “Hamlet” by riffing on “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables,” “Pippin,” “Annie,” and any other number of tuners, although I might have confused some of those titles with a musical number in the first act that also makes references to a ton of old shows. Children who have seen “Aladdin” will recognize this as Nicholaw’s homage to the Genie’s big showstopper in the Disney musical.
The only truly contemporary show Nicholaw skewers in “Rotten” is the “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” number in “An American in Paris,” complete with the same kick-line choreography and Radio City Music Hall set, although the “AAIP” people hardly got there first with that one.
The show-within-a show format of “Rotten” recalls Nicholaw’s work in “The Book of Mormon.” But there’s a big difference: The musical the Ugandans perform in “Mormon” emerges from their own unique take on a missionary’s interpretation of Joseph Smith’s wacko teachings. It isn’t ripped out of the blue from an old collection of Playbills.
The recycling doesn’t stop there. The “Rotten” women can’t quite compete with the men. Heidi Blickenstaff as the crossdressing wife channels Sara Ramirez in “Spamalot,” while Kate Reinders as the Puritan girlfriend channels Kristin Chenoweth in almost everything, but at least has the good taste to skip “Promises, Promises.”
The score by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick is most successful when it sticks to what always works on Broadway nowadays: disco and gospel, complete with a large-voiced black woman, Marisha Wallace, leading the charge.