Wednesday, July 12, 2017

'Something Rotten' Isn't -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Something Rotten!
a musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 23

Dating back to my childhood affinity for MAD magazine, parody songs by Steve Dahl and the Spinal Tap mockumentary, I've long had an appreciation for satire.

Artistic creations that reference and lovingly--mostly--poke fun at other creations (and/or artists) can be tremendously imaginative, delightful and insightful in their own right.

Even if one only catches half the allusions, seeing how Scream sends up horror film tropes or The Onion apes "real news" can be a whole lot of fun, and worthwhile on various levels.

Hence, contrary to its title, Something Rotten--a musical satirizing Shakespeare and, even more so, other musicals--is wonderfully executed, quite engagingly mirthful and really quite delightful.

It is a hoot if you love musicals and know enough of them to catch many rapid-fire references, and while Shakespearean hijinks are a bit secondary, those who love the Bard--as well as showtunes--should be doubly delighted.

Photo credit on all: Jeremy Daniel
Yet, as with most satirical works, Something Rotten doesn't eclipse its reference points...for the most part.

It is meant as high praise to call it a highly entertaining musical; the show wouldn't have run on Broadway (for nearly 2 years) and earned 10 Tony nominations if it wasn't.

It's easy to recommend as it's hard to imagine many not liking it, even if few--perhaps including the clearly inspired brothers, Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, who conceived and largely created Something Rotten!--are apt to cite it among the very best musicals they've ever seen.

The Kirkpatricks wrote the music & lyrics, and from the opening "Welcome to the Renaissance," there are several strong numbers that revolve around the playwriting Bottom brothers--Nick, played by the terrific Rob McClure, who starred in Chaplin on Broadway, and Nigel, an excellent Josh Grisetti--who are tired of being topped by Shakespeare.

So although there is much fun had at the Bard's expense, the show's narrative by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell isn't strictly a parody of Shakespeare--as I was largely expecting--so much as a Renaissance-based musical satire in which Sir William and some of his works factor in.

On this first National Tour of Something Rotten!--directed and choreographed as on Broadway by Casey Nicholaw--Shakespeare is played, in dashing, rock star fashion, by Adam Pascal.

Pascal will always be Broadway royalty due to originating the role of Roger in Rent, so it's exciting to see him onstage here, and he remains a striking presence and excellent vocalist.

As the storyline is more so about the Bottom brothers, as well as Nick's wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) and Nigel's paramour Portia (Autumn Hurlbert), Shakespeare isn't really involved until late in Act I. So while Pascal shines on both "Will Power" and "Hard to Be the Bard," he actually seems a bit underutilized. (Christian Borle played Shakespeare on Broadway and won a Tony as Best Featured Actor, not the lead.)

Along with several funny lines and clever lyrics, Something Rotten! contains dozens of references to other musicals, from Annie and A Chorus Line to Les Miserables and Cats, and myriad more.

This obviously adds greatly to the fun of the whole affair, and reverentially so, but Pascal's presence also unwittingly serves to remind that despite being great for what it is, this gleeful satire doesn't reach the heights of Rent or other truly transcendent musicals.

Nonetheless, beyond plenty of humor, it includes a good dose of Broadway-caliber dancing (including group tap numbers) and several genuinely fine songs, including the spectacular show piece "We See the Light," "To Thine Own Self" and the title song.

I don't think there's any reason to give away any of the gags, as their surprise jousts are much of the fun--I had listened to the cast recording on Spotify but more so in the background so the jokes would be fresh; shame some women behind me kept talking over the songs--but without telling you his exact role in prompting the Bottoms to write a musical (or its subject matter), I'll just note that the jocular and hirsute Blake Hammond is clearly one of the show's highlights.

On Tuesday night, Something Rotten's first in Chicago, the rather full crowd at the Oriental bestowed a well-deserved standing ovation.

Upon exiting with my Broadway in Chicago co-subscriber Paolo, I surmised that this is a show musical theater aficionados should see and love--thanks to all it spoofs--and that those who rarely get to theater might also relish because of all the laughs and quite estimable production values.

But whether on Broadway--where the show won just one of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated in 2015--or in Chicago, there will almost always be theater options that are simply better. (Currently I'd recommend Hamilton, Aladdin, Parade and The Bridges of Madison County more strongly for most, and some fine non-musicals as well.)

So whether this show is to be--or not to be--a priority is something for you to decide. But I'm confident that almost anyone who has the Will would agree...

It truly isn't Something Rotten!

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