‘Something Rotten!’ at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Every arts writer has trends, tropes, trite bits and pieces that annoy them—often not worth addressing, but irritating nonetheless. One of mine happens to be the pandering inside joke—jokes based on us, the audience, knowing more than a character because we are in the future. My favorite made-up example: “A Black president?! That’ll be the day!”

So what do you do when a show is all about your pet peeve? In my case, you try to chill the hell out. Because from the moment the ridiculous Renaissance meta-musical Something Rotten! opens, those jokes come fast and furious, and that’s the point. The musical about the beginning of musicals, cloaked in wonderfully cartoonish costumes (Gregg Barnes) and an olde timey London set (Scott Pask), is catnip for theatre nerds, history nerds, nerdy nerds and everyone in between, and it really, really doesn’t want you to take the theatah so seriously.

I tried. Really, I did. The opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” is silly fun, painfully literal and jauntily anachronistic. (The show’s many willful anachronisms are the best parts—over-the-top pop numbers in Elizabethan costumes are just funny.) But five short scenes in and the jig is up, the joke’s been made, and now we have to listen to it on repeat for another hour and a half.  

This national tour of Something Rotten!, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, has finally landed at the 5th Avenue after a planned premiere here in 2015 was scrapped in favor of a direct-to-Broadway launch. With music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and a book by Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, the show’s premise is pretty simple: Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom are aspiring playwrights in 16th-century London, but, this being 16th-century London, there’s already a big-deal playwright in town crowding out all the rest. Shakespeare, limelight hogger (and idea stealer) that he is, won’t share, so Nick seeks the help of a soothsayer to get the jump on the next big idea. Plays of the future, says Nostradamus (Thomas Nostradamus), will also have singing! And dancing! Can you believe it?! So, the brothers start writing the Western world’s first musical.

There’s also some stuff about sweet poet Nigel falling in love with a poetry-loving Puritan girl, Nick’s wife dressing like a man to get a job, and Shakespeare infiltrating the Bottoms’ rehearsals as theatrical espionage. But any “plot” element is beside the point—the only point is inside jokes about Shakespeare and musicals, lots of them, obvious allusions rolled into montages full of Follies fans, Chorus Line headshots, “All that Jazz” strains, “whaddaya talks,” Macavity jokes and tap numbers (god help me, but I do love a tap number). Dramatic lighting shifts as the first chords of Rent’s “Seasons of Love” sound, eliciting a roar of laughter before zipping right back into the relentlessly peppy song.

“That sounds miserable,” says Nick, as Nostradamus explains to him the concept of the sung-thru musical.

“I believe it’s pronounced “miser-AH-bluh,” sings Nostradamus, and I thought the roof was going to cave in from laughter.

The problem wasn’t just that the humor was dumb—that I can get on board with. The problem is it’s boring; one single joke, stretched over two-and-a-half hours, blended with some bad puns, shitty gender roles, played-out sex jokes and gay jabs, all delivered with more astonishing acting and vocal talent than it has any right to.

Rob McClure’s Nick practically vibrates with frustration, and no surprise; McClure, who played Nick on Broadway and was Tony-nominated for his starring role in Chaplin, is a stellar physical comedian. He and Blake Hammond, as Nostradamus, together have the vocal chops and hammy comedy abilities to make their ridiculous numbers land. Josh Grisetti’s Nigel has a ho-hum sweetness that actually hurts your heart when he’s done wrong, and while Adam Pascal definitely has the rock voice for this Shakespeare, he lacks the comic timing that makes him a villain worth hating. As for Nick’s wife, Bea (Maggie Lakis), and Nigel’s love, Portia (Autumn Hurlburt), each gets an obligatory dead-end song that pretends to be character development, but hey, at least they’re singing the hell out of them.

Somewhere in the show’s first act, what at first seemed like pleasantly self-aware, self-referential comedy dropped off a cliff into downright cynicism. I’m paraphrasing here: “Get off your high horses! Hardworking real people don’t want any emotional, topical or thought-provoking garbage, they just want to be entertained!” As though this show, crammed with surface-level humor, only some of it clever, is the height of entertainment and anyone who asks for something more, for something new, something great, is elitist or stuffy. Maybe I’m just taking this too seriously, making a big deal of something that’s supposed to be fun. But come on, asking for more isn’t cynical; expecting nothing better than what you’re given, that’s cynical. What a bummer. 

Something Rotten runs through Oct. 1.