At the beginning of the pandemic, some writers pointed out that Shakespeare wrote one of his most acclaimed plays, King Lear, in the middle of a plague. This led to speculation on what brilliant, era-defining work of art would come out of our modern plague. For writers, this was an unnecessary source of added pressure—in the middle of COVID, wasn’t surviving day-to-day enough of an achievement? I didn’t make an ill-advised attempt to write my next Great American Novel, but from a consumer’s perspective, I’m fine if we don’t get a coronavirus-era King Lear. Right now, escapist, joyful, well-crafted entertainment is more than enough. I need—to quote a lyric from Something Rotten!, which is now playing at Pioneer Theatre Company—“something more relaxing and less taxing on the brain.”
A proudly crowd-pleasing love letter to a proudly crowd-pleasing art form, Something Rotten! imagines a ridiculous alternate origin story to the classic musical. In 1590s England, William Shakespeare (Matthew Hydzik) is the most celebrated of the Renaissance playwrights, leaving other writers floundering in his shadow. Brothers Nick (Matt Farcher) and Nigel Bottom (Daniel Plimpton), who lead a struggling theater troupe, need to produce a hit play quickly before losing their patronage. While Nick’s ahead-of-his-time wife Bea (Galyana Castillo) wants to find work and ease the family’s financial burdens, Nick seeks advice from the soothsayer Nostradamus (Robert Anthony Jones) about his next play. Nostradamus gets a spotty vision about the future of theater—the Broadway musical. Though the Elizabethans are initially confused by the concept, Nick and Nigel forge ahead, believing it to be their perfect chance to one-up Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Nigel begins a passionate romance with Portia (Lexi Rabadi), the daughter of a Puritan (Kevin B. McGlynn) who opposes all theater and poetry.
If it’s not clear already, at least 80% of the plot is just an excuse for endless puns and references to both Shakespeare and popular musicals—some obvious, some niche and some in between. Something Rotten! has a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to comedy. The jokes are all over the place, from genuinely clever to stupid funny to just plain stupid—the cast, though, fully commits to the absurdity, and, sometimes through sheer force of will, most of the bits land.
The universally strong cast, all of whom are clearly having a lot of fun with the material, makes the material succeed. Farcher, a strong singer and dancer in a cast full of them, makes Nick relatable and sympathetic even when the Bottom brother spends a lot of the play acting like, well, an ass. As the sensitive, talented poet of the brother duo, Plimpton is totally charming, providing just enough human-sized emotion to ground the ridiculous farce. Though her character is sometimes underused, Castillo is also willing, completely selling her solo song “Right Hand Man” and providing a necessary female perspective. (In Shakespeare’s lifetime, women weren’t allowed on stage, even to play female characters.) Hydzik may have the most challenging task of all—partly because the role’s originator, Christian Borle, left a signature mark and won a Tony Award for the part and partly because the show’s glammy, leather-clad Shakespeare requires a rock-stars charisma. Luckily, Hydzik makes his own mark as the charming egomaniac who gets under Nick’s skin.
Director and choreographer Karen Azenberg leads the talented ensemble, who effectively parody musicals while adeptly performing some classic musical trademarks, from energetic tap breaks to Fosse-style jazz hands to high-kicking chorus lines. In one inspired touch, an inappropriately chipper song about the Black Death includes subtle nods to our current deadly plague. Set designer George Maxwell builds a storybook version of Elizabethan England that perfectly fits the musical’s daffy alternate reality. Unfortunately, whether it was the sound design or the diction of the performers, it could be difficult to hear some of the music and dialogue. I was familiar with the soundtrack coming in, but newcomers may miss a lot of the best jokes in the show’s fast pacing.
The score, by Karey and Wayne Patrick, fills fairly conventional Broadway-pop compositions to the brim with in-jokes and clever lines. In “A Musical,” an eight-minute song and the play’s highlight, Nostradamus predicts the entire future of musical theater. Jones’ brash, more-is-more performance is exactly what the musical calls for—he steals the show anytime he’s on stage. With callouts to a laundry list of musical favorites, from Les Misérables to A Chorus Line to Rent, the song captures the musical’s tone: a self-aware but loving sendup of the art form, targeted at devotees. In these moments, Something Rotten! both spoofs and delivers the genre’s simple pleasures.