If you love Shakespeare and musicals, “Something Rotten” is a must-see, but unless you want your kids memorizing lyrics where penises rhymes with geniuses, keep it an adults only outing. “Something Rotten” at the Ahmanson is about the hardship faced by playwrights during the time of Shakespeare.
Just think of it. If you were a playwright during Shakespeare’s day, how dismal would that be? Here, Shakespeare (Adam Pascal) is re-imagined as the rock star of his day. Think Billy Idol.
This, of course, is not unlike the movie “Amadeus.” While “Amadeus” (which began as a play) followed the self-destructive course of Mozart as seen by another, less talented but more successful composer (Salieri), “Something Rotten” is less concerned with Shakespeare’s fate and more with the struggle of two brothers: The Bottom Brothers–Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti).
Of course, if you’re familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll recognize the name Nick Bottom as coming from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For those who are unfamiliar, here’s what you need to know. Nick (there is no Nigel) was the weaver who along with other tradesmen attempts to put on a play in honor of the nuptials of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and the former queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. Before they can get very far, Puck, a servant of the fairy king Oberon, decides to turn Nick’s head into that of a donkey (ass) which frightens away his fellow tradesmen/amateur actors but through a spell, Nick becomes beloved by Oberon’s queen, Titania. Once the spell is broken, Nick believes that what has happened with Titania is just a dream and goes on to perform an incredibly bad play that does amuse the duke and his new bride.
In “Something Rotten,” we’re reminded that while we like to play at ren fairs, the Renaissance life wasn’t so easy (“Welcome to the Renaissance”). Having emerged for the Dark Ages:
War of the Roses, Chaucer’s tale
The brutal feudal system
Holy crusade, Bubonic plague
Can’t say that we’ve really missed ’em
So dark and barbaric, So dull and mundane
That was so Middle Ages
That was so – Charlemagne
In comparison, the Renaissance is “progressive” with the “latest and the greatest.” You get a list of literary luminaries including John Webster, Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe, but the “brightest star,” “the bomb” and the “whiz on the Elizabethan stage” is Shakespeare.
But Nick Bottom declares “I do hate Shakespeare” and opines, “I just don’t get it–how a mediocre actor from a measly little town is suddenly the brightest jewel in England’s royal crown” (“God, I Hate Shakespeare”). There are, after all, problems with his plays which are “wordy” and the bard lacks a sense of the audience because “he makes them feel so dumb.”
Struggling under the shadow of the arrogant Shakespeare, a despairing Nick has stolen the savings his wife, Bea (Maggi Lakis), has stored away, in order to consult with a fortune teller, Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), at Soothsayer Alley. Nostradamus advises them to try “A Musical.” The Bottom Brothers have questionable taste, because they try a musical on “The Black Death.” And this isn’t one of those meant-to-fail endeavors like “Springtime for Hitler.”
The Bottom brothers will decide upon another topic and this will also inspired Shakespeare. This version of Shakespeare has the bard stealing a few lines from the taller and better looking brother, Nigel, and introduces us to other characters who will appear in his plays (e.g. Peter Quince, Yorick and Shylock). The bard, who has black leather-clad backup boys, suffers too because when one’s a success, the expectations are always high (“Hard to Be the Bard”).
Not everyone in Renaissance England loves plays or music–the Puritans were against such frivolity as it would lead to hell, but there is one Puritan who finds plays, music and one particular Bottom brother irresistible: Portia (Autumn Hurlbert).
Along the merry way to a happy ending, there will be chorus girls (and boys) and a lot of references to Shakespearean plays and Broadway classics through lines and style (e.g. Bob Fosse). There is no nudity, but the humor can be bawdy (“Don’t be a penis. The man is a genius.” from “Oh, God I Hate Shakespeare”). Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps the references clear and the transitions seamless. If you don’t mind high culture served with a bit of low culture on the side, “Something Rotten” is lots of fun and really a must-see for people who love the bard.
“Something Rotten” continues at the Ahmanson until 31 December 2017. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 972-4400.