Matthew Baker in a scene from 'Something Rotten!' Now playing at The Fisher Theatre
William Shakespeare has always been an icon in the world of theatre, and today his works are immortalized as some of the most influential to have ever graced the stage. Now, over four hundred years since his first play was performed, the touring production of “Something Rotten,” which just hit the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, is giving audiences a fictional tale tinged with his wit, charm, and humor. It's a devilishly fun and hilarious riot that demands attention from fans of Shakespeare and spectacle alike.
The year is 1595 in South London, where the townsfolk are gathering for the premiere of the newest and hippest play of the decade: “Romeo and Juliet,” in which Shakespeare (in all his bad-boy, rockstar glamour) can't get enough of his own ego. The opening song “Welcome to The Renaissance” - a catchy, ho-humming tune sung engagingly by the Minstrel (Devin Holloway) – who dutifully reminds us the impact Shakespeare had on the world. And, much like how tweens today would react if they saw Harry Styles of One Direction in the flesh, it's quite funny to see his “groupies” fainting at the sight of him.
Across the pond, there's a pair that aren't singing The Bard's sweet song: two playwright brothers appropriately named Nigel and Nick Bottom (Matthew Michael Janisse and Richard Spitaletta) who are trying to compete at the same level. They're still waiting for their big break, and all anyone is talking about is the newest rumor mill: a production of Shakespeare’s latest, “Richard II,” which only infuriates Nick more because “He's already done 'Richard III.'" Maddened that someone could get under his skin by going backwards, his next musical interlude: “God, I Hate Shakespeare” lives up to its sarcastic title.
Matters only get worse when the duo finds out their rich benefactor doesn't want a piece of the pie anymore and would rather cash in on the next big thing. Needless to say, Nick and Nigel don't have a moneymaker, that is, until Nick visits a rambunctiously silly soothsayer (son to Nostradamus) named Thomas (Greg Kalafatas who steals many key scenes with his irresistible personality) and foresees a future filled with a pot-pourri of weird plays dubbed musicals. “Why would people pay to see others sing for the whole show?” quips Nick, “Because it's entertaining!”
This results in a showstopping musical number aptly titled “A Musical” that covers generations of popular Broadway standards, where it seems no show goes untouched. Whether it's “Les Miserables,” “A Chorus Line,” “Annie,” or “Rent” - the song feels like a grand finale stuck in the middle of the show. The payoff is hilarious, and the audience roared for (at least) thirty seconds upon its completion during Wednesday night's performance.
Granted, some of the more obscure references could fly over the heads of those not as familiar with musical theatre, but the intended humor lands regardless (plus, who doesn't know “Annie?”) You'll also discover the evolution of the first ever “Spoiler alert!” and how sonnets can become a hilarious euphemism for sex.
Still, the biggest reveal in the show comes when Nick is searching for the most influential play of the next century and Nostradamus (who must've had a bad connection with his link in the future) comes back with the title “Omelette,” and boy does it make for a winning two and half hours of solid comedy.
That's right folks, dancing eggs are in your future; as Nick spends the entire second act developing a musically inclined version of “Hamlet” around your favorite breakfast foods!
On those merits alone, it's clear that “Something Rotten” is a cheerily over-the-top show, complete with a great scenic design by Scott Pask (he really does a number with his versatile design) and Gregg Barnes masterfully well crafted costume design. Both designers come from the original Broadway run, along with director Casey Nicholaw (who doubled as a choreographer, too). Nicholaw, of "Aladdin" and “The Book of Mormon” fame, whose veteran instincts know perfectly when to transition and how to keep a steady flow of action (the show never feels like its running slow). All other aspects considered, the choreography is hardly the star, however, “Rotten,” was never a dance heavy production.
Of course, lead actors Matthew Michael Janisse and Richard Spitaletta are clearly suited for the heavy tempos, pacing, and style of Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s strong ensemble of clever songs (a few tongue twisters that I could never wrap my head around). But audiences will more than likely hoot and holler at Matthew Baker's performance of William Shakespeare. Baker embodies all the charisma necessary for The Bard, who sings of his sorrows with iambic pentameter and writers block very humorously. He comes across like Aldous Snow (the character Russell Brand played in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall and “Get Him To The Greek”). Lest we forget other side characters: a Jewish investor named Shylock (Peter Surace) and a pesky Puritan (Mark Saunders) who's lovely daughter Portia (Jennifer Elizabeth Smith) becomes entangled in a bubbly romantic courtship with Nigel.
That said, the only real issues in this touring production stem from sound and acoustics. On several occasions, the mixing and balance of the actors with the orchestra became too overpowered and whole phrases and sentences were left unheard. And, to add insult to injury, I was fairly close in proximity to the stage and still had trouble hearing lyrics in songs. It’s likely a fault that’ll be course corrected over time, but it was overwhelming during the nearly sold out performance.
Aside from those qualms, and a few messy plotting mechanisms in the second act, “Something Rotten” is a shamelessly silly parody and an outrageous spoof of all things Shakespeare. Plus, there's an endearingly earnest tenacity about the two Bottom brothers striving to conjure up the next big hit, even if the riffs are clearly borrowed from other musicals in the same genre. Sometimes, (as is the case of the main characters and writers) all it takes is a few nuts to break a couple eggs.
IF YOU GO:
Performances of Something Rotten continue through October 7th.
With performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday evening at 7:30pm, and Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2pm
Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster.com, by phone at 800-982-278 or by visiting broadwayindetroit.com