That isn't exactly a dig. Something Rotten is a hilarious love letter to the theatre, with tongue firmly in cheek. It was conceived by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, both of whom wrote the score. (The book is by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.) Set in 1595, the story focuses on the Bottom brothers, Nick (Brian d'Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani), two writers overshadowed by rock star writer William Shakespeare (Christian Borle). Looking for success, Nick visits a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to try to find out what the next big thing in theatre will be. Turns out, it's musicals, an art form heretofore unknown to the Bottoms, et al. Not being able to come up with a good idea for a musical, Nick returns to the soothsayer in an effort to find out Shakespeare's next big hit before the Bard writes it himself. The soothsayer unknowingly gets one significant detail about Hamlet wrong, and a farce ensues.
Boasting a zany, madcap attitude, Something Rotten is self aware and arch. There are multiple show-stopping numbers (which, after a while, tend to smack of, "please like me" syndrome). The show is constantly on the verge of going off the rails, always teetering on the fulcrum between comedic brilliance and committing the cardinal sin of unabashed mugging. That tension can actually be fun and satisfying for the audience—if the show finds its balance. In hindsight, Something Rotten sometimes topples over the edge.
You see, throughout, the show is peppered with musical theatre and Shakespearean references. (There are not as many "deep cut" musical theatre references as the aforementioned [title of show], but the more you know about musicals (and Shakespeare) the more you'll chuckle.) Most of them are clever and entertaining. (For example, Nick's wife is Bea (the wonderful Blickenstaff), and her arc mirrors The Merchant of Venice's Portia. There is a character in Something Rotten called Portia, but she's Nigel's love interest and mostly used as a device.) And in "A Musical," the 11 o'clock number that comes in the first half of act one (think: "Friend Like Me" in Aladdin; like Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart in that number, here, Tony nominee Brad Oscar (The Producers, Big Fish) pulls out all the stops), musical theatre references—lyrical, musical, choreographic and more—abound. Appropriately.
As the reference count piles up to the rafters, you get the sense you're watching a well-crafted, well-budgeted Hasty Pudding sketch, a revue that exists to allow the writers to make jokes about musical theatre. (It's kind of how American Hustle pulled a con on audiences: slick production value, a great cast, released during award season—but no heft.) It's all in good fun, of course—these are not bullies making fun of the beloved art form. Still, in its greatest contrast to the other musical about two guys writing a musical, the lack of heart equals, for me, a lack of connection.
I don't mean to dissuade you from seeing it, dear readers. It's one of the buzziest shows of the season. Theatre sycophants are going gaga. Insiders are excited for it. It's probably going to win the Tony for Best Musical, and it is, in truth, quite entertaining.
Tony nominee Brian d'Arcy James (already having a great year after his show-stealing performance in Hamilton) is divine. He should be in everything. Heidi Blickenstaff ([title of show], Now. Here. This.), though underused, is fabulous each time she's on stage. As the Something Rotten character Portia, Kate Reinders is doing her best Kristin Chenoweth impression. Tony nominee John Cariani reminds me of SNL player Kyle Mooney, with his nebbishy, hesitant, aw-shucks dopiness. And Tony winner Christian Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Smash) is a smarmy rock star, full of swagger and bombast.
It's a fun ride, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin), with a hard-working ensemble (led by The Book of Mormon and Hair alumnus Michael James Scott). You'll laugh uproariously. You'll clap with fervor. You won't think you've just seen something rotten. But while the Bottom brothers were creating something revolutionary, the Kirkpatrick brothers, in the wake of recent musical comedies like The Producers and The Book of Mormon, and current revivals like On the Twentieth Century, aren't exactly charting new territory; they just have a better hype man.