Shakespearean send-up scintillates as consummately clever comedy
by Chuck Duncan
The Broadway musical Something Rotten opened on April 22nd, 2015, garnered ten Tony Awards nominations (winning one for Christian Borle as Best Supporting Actor) and for some reason closed after just 742 performances on January 1st, 2017. I first became aware of the show while watching the Tony Awards performance of its signature number, “A Musical,” and finally got to see the show when it went on tour in 2017. I was instantly smitten with Rotten’s simultaneous parody and embrace of Broadway musical conventions. Possessing everything anyone would want in a Broadway musical, I’m baffled as to why it had such a relatively short run. Ever since the show was announced as part of the Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s 2023 schedule, I’ve been counting the months, weeks, and days to the opening. And now that we’re here, does it live up to impossibly high expectations? Read on.
Something Rotten takes place in the ’90s – the 1590s to be exact – at a time when William Shakespeare was a rock star, with women swooning at his feet as he churned out one hit play after another. This adoration is a thorn in the side of the brothers Bottom, Nick and Nigel, playwrights in their own right (well, Nigel does all the work while Nick takes all the credit) who are on the verge of losing their patronage unless they can be like Shakespeare and come up with an original idea. Nigel is hung up on writing an emotional drama based on the brothers’ lives but Nick doesn’t want to go there. Nick’s wife Bea knows they are in a pinch and offers to help out but … she’s a woman so what can she do? (Plenty, it turns out.) While Nigel grows increasingly frustrated with his brother, falls in love with the Puritan preacher’s daughter, Portia, and secretly fawns over Shakespeare’s works, Nick decides the only way to top Will is to beat him at his own game so he employs the services of a soothsayer (Nostradamus’s nephew) to look into the future and see what Shakespeare’s greatest play will be so that Nick can “write it” first, and what the theatre will be like in the future (lovely, and with a roof … but $10 for a glass of wine?!). Nostradamus does see something stunning, something truly original – a musical, where dialogue is replaced with songs that help forward the plot. There’s dancing, too. And cats. And the title of Shakespeare’s greatest hit is … Omelette: The Musical, which involves a prince possibly eating a danish, so it has a breakfast theme? After Nigel’s decision to write a play about the plague is shot down, Nick is certain this musical idea can work but he still has to sell the idea to his investors – who don’t understand it at all – and keep an eye out for old Will, who gets wind of this interesting new idea of theirs, while Nigel considers breaking up with his brother and running off with Portia (while terrified of reprisal from her father). Unsure of the show’s appeal, Nick forges on when he learns the opening night performance is sold out, but will Shakespeare get the upper hand?
Something Rotten (which is a reference to a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) sets the tone right off the bat with the big introductory number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” and it just rolls on from there. The book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick, and songs by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, delights in skewering Broadway musical tropes, tossing in references left and right to popular shows that should amuse fans of Broadway (one of my favorite exchanges is “Why is there a fiddler on the roof?” with the response being “Because that’s where the chim chim cher-ee is”). The not historically accurate portrayal of Shakespeare is a hoot, but with all of the gags and double entendres the story still has a great big heart at the center, essentially making Nick and Nigel the straightmen to all the lunacy going on around them. It’s a complicated balancing act to not have it all go completely off the rails, but it succeeds completely.
The show’s leads, Jeffrey Shankle (Nick) and Toby’s newcomer Ben Ribler (Nigel), are terrific and bounce off of each other very well. But they also hold the show together when they are on their own as well. Shankle is always great to watch in his wide swath of roles he’s played at Toby’s, from leads to ensemble members, and he is equally great here and in fine voice as well. Ribler is fantastic as the younger brother, giving Nigel a combination of wide-eyed innocence, first love giddiness, and heart-tugging emotion. From my vantage point where Bea is having a talk with him about supporting Nick, I could see every emotion of the character on his face (one of the advantages of Toby’s intimate in-the-round stage), making it seem like this was the very first time he’s heard these words. On the opposite end of the scale, his joyful reactions to Portia’s reactions to his writing were simply delightful, and to top it off he also has a lovely voice as well. Together, they really are the foundation of this show and for the most part have to play their roles more grounded and realistic to counterbalance the nuttiness around them.
Marina Yiannouris is delightful as Portia. She has great chemistry with Ribler, and her little squeals of joy were absolutely precious and perfect, and her duet with Ribler (‘I Love the Way’) was so endearing you can’t help but to root for them to end up together. Janine Sunday is also great as Bea, a character that’s part Alice Kramden, part Lucy Ricardo, but always supportive of Nick no matter what cockamamie idea he comes up with, and she will go to any lengths to help make his dream come true. She also has a fabulous voice and has quickly become one of my favorite regular performers at Toby’s.
In contrast to the brothers, Justin Calhoun gets to chew the scenery with relish as Shakespeare, kind of a Mick Jagger / Rod Stewart / David Lee Roth mash-up, favoring leather outfits for himself and his posse, seducing all the women in town (even Portia is a fangirl, but she always has eyes for Nigel), scheming and plotting to take down Nick by any and all means possible. It’s clear Calhoun is relishing this role and, as always, he sounds terrific delivering Shakespeare’s songs “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard.” I’ve been a Justin Calhoun fan since his turn as the Prince in The Little Mermaid, and he does not disappoint here.
Another of my newer favorites is Shane Lowry, who opens the show in the role of the Minstrel. He has such a great stage presence and a powerful voice, and I look forward to seeing him in any show. Even when he’s part of the ensemble he is always one to watch and I hope he gets more prominent roles in the future. Also terrific is Adam Grabau as Brother Jeremiah, Portia’s father. Grabau was so good in Monty Python’s Spamalot and here he gets some of the show’s biggest laughs delivering some of the more risqué double entendres. His reactions when he realizes what he’s just said – priceless. David James is a hoot as Lord Clapham, the benefactor to the brothers, and Robert Biedermann has some hilarious moments as Shylock, who it turns out was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Shylock character in The Merchant of Venice (but not quite the way the “real” Shylock was promised if you know the play). And Jordan B. Stockdale steals every scene he’s in as Nostradamus. His facial expressions, the way he moves his hands, the crazy predictions … I’m running out of superlatives for this cast. Add in a strong ensemble that includes Brandon Bedore, Patrick Gover (and it’s great to see him do some real comedy after two heavy roles in Rocky and Ghost), Ari Messeca, Vince Musgrave, MaryKate Brouillet, Tina DeSimone, Lydia Gifford, Amanda Kaplan, and Patricia Targete, and you just can’t go wrong.
Keeping this well-oiled machine running is director and choreographer Mark Minnick, skillfully moving the actors around that stage (and above on occasion), keeping the brothers grounded while allowing the others to have a field day with their roles, and expertly staging the big musical numbers. When I saw the national tour, the “A Musical” number was a huge production that earned a well-deserved extended ovation (you don’t normally see a standing ovation for the fourth song in the first act) so I was curious as to how Minnick was going to pull it off. As usual, he managed to get just about the entire cast in that space, moving around without a stumble, and creatively pulling off the signature chorus line kick in a way that the cast members ended up facing every member of the audience at some point, while doing those high kicks! Simply fabulous. Minnick knows how to work with his core cast members by this point, and he has that eye for talent when bringing newcomers into the fold. He’s struck gold with Ribler and Yiannouris (I believe this is her first Toby’s show, but correct me if I’m wrong).
Something Rotten is most definitely 100% fresh so be sure you catch it before it hits that expiration date of March 19th!
And of course you can’t pass up the dinner part of “dinner theatre” starting with the salad bar, and then the sumptuous buffet featuring Glazed Carrots, Roasted Cauliflower, Bottom Brothers’ Broccoli, Roasted Garlic Potatoes Dijonnaisse, the signature Spinach Phunque, Cheesy Pasta Bake, Sausage and Peppers, Chicken Merriweather, Baked Tilapia, the carving board, the ice cream bar, and the choice of cakes for dessert. And be sure to treat yourself to the show’s specialty drink, the “Bottom’s Up,” a delicious frozen mango daiquiri made with Captain Morgan and topped with whipped cream and a candy egg (wink, wink), which is also available without the rum. And you get a souvenir glass, too. Great food, a great show, a great night out!
Note: Something Rotten contains mild language and adult innuendos. Fog, haze, and strobe effects may be used in this production.
- Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for CliqueClack.com and now owns the pop culture website Hotchka.com where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio