Following in the audaciously silly footsteps of “The Book of Mormon” and “Spamalot,” “Something Rotten!” is a Broadway musical that sets out to pinion you with laughter.
Punchlines and pratfalls are the main order of business. This light theatrical soufflé, conceived by brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, can only succeed by putting theatergoers into a state of gigging delirium.
When the show opened on Broadway in 2015, the comedy was executed to perfection by a cast that included Brian d’Arcy James, Christian Borle and Brad Oscar. The commendable touring production, which opened Wednesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa before heading to the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. later this month, can’t quite attain the same intoxicating heights.
The spell isn’t unbroken this time around. The zaniness doesn’t eradicate all sober thought. But it’s never long before a devious joke or frantic dance step plunges us back into giddy hilarity. If it’s flagrant merriment you want, “Something Rotten!” will satisfy your fix.
Set in Renaissance England, when being a playwright was as cool as being a YouTube star today, “Something Rotten!” takes up the story of the hapless Bottom brothers, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti), who are determined to make a name for themselves in the theater. These struggling playwrights are tired of living in the shadow of that cocky William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), who struts about like a rock star after a string of hits has all of London talking like Romeo and Juliet.
Nick, who’s married to plucky Bea (Maggie Lakis), is the more aggressively business-minded of the Bottom boys. Nigel, a jittery puppy barely able to take care of himself, is the true poet. The window of opportunity is rapidly closing on them: Every new story idea the duo comes up with is already claimed by Shakespeare, a shameless plagiarist always eager to filch an idea from Nigel’s notebook.
Nick vents his frustration in song. In “God, I Hate Shakespeare” (a title that adorns T-shirts in the Segerstrom concession stands), he grouses about “how a mediocre actor from a measly little town / Is suddenly the brightest jewel in England’s royal crown.” (The numbers by the Kirkpatrick brothers have a pastiche insouciance that’s as fizzy as it is ephemeral.)
The musical’s cartoon version of Elizabethan England is half the fun. Scott Pask’s sets conjure the atmosphere of a rollicking fair. And Greg Barnes’ costumes, while a little heavy on the codpieces, allow for jaunty maneuvering.
The opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” sets the cheeky tone of a theatrical world in which the velvet ropes and red carpets of our age are transported to 1595 London, where the boldface names happen to be dramatic poets like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster. (That Marlowe died in 1593 and Webster was still only a teen in 1595 hardly matters: “Something Rotten!” isn’t a study guide for Early Modern England.)
The book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell contains a gem of an idea that tilts the show in the direction of a “Forbidden Broadway” spoof. Nick visits a soothsayer who goes by the name of Thomas Nostradamus (Blake Hammond). A Falstaffian wreck waiting for an easy mark, Nostradamus reveals to Nick that the next big breakthrough in the theater is going to be something called a musical, in which a character, for no reason whatsoever, will suddenly break into song to the ecstasy of theatergoers, who would rather be dazzled than treated like thinking adults capable of understanding difficult poetry.
How utterly absurd! Nick can hardly believe his ears, but after learning that he’s about to become a father, he demands that Nostradamus poke his head into the future and tell him the subject of Shakespeare’s greatest hit. This is when the plot goes from madcap to gaily mad. Nostradamus, who’s better at peering into the future than carefully sorting out the information, tells him about a play called “Omelette.”
“Like with eggs?” Nick incredulously asks.
Nostradamus, deciphering another vision, replies, “Something … Danish?”
In a poof of psychic confusion, the world’s first breakfast musical is born. Nostradamus helps turn this Hamlet with eggs vehicle into an extravaganza that borrows characters and plot points from 20th century musical theater landmarks, including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Dreamgirls.” The setup provides one excuse after another for director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”) to work his flamboyant stage magic
The prolonged farcical antics falter at moments, but there’s always a spare kooky character to provide a lift. Shylock (Jeff Brooks), a moneylender whose dream is to become a producer — he gets “verklempt” by just being inside a theater — can hardly believe the cockamamie show he’s agreed to fund.
Indeed, no one even semi-sane can understand what Nick is cooking up, including Nigel, who has fallen hard for poetry-crazed Portia (Autumn Hurlbert). The daughter of Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote), a closet-case Puritan who’s determined to close down the city’s theatrical dens of iniquity, she encourages her diffident sweetheart to be true to his talent. It’s a sentiment that leads inexorably to the number “To Thine Own Self,” a song that naturally catches Shakespeare’s pilfering ear.
“Something Rotten!” is filled to the brim with phallic humor and gay jokes, but the show is more daffy than naughty. This is Broadway camp served up with an elbow nudge and a wink. Borle, who won a Tony for turning Shakespeare into an arrogant lout, and d’Arcy James, who showed the veins popping in Nick’s temples as his plans go haywire, gave the musical a bite that no touring company could expect to duplicate.
Fortunately, everyone gets the job done. McClure’s Nick, the musical’s reliable engine, is part worrywart, part manic schemer. Grisetti’s endearing Nigel resembles a frail bumbler in one of Shakespeare’s early comedies. Pascal’s Shakespeare has an air of Billy Idol in his snarling prime. Lakis’ Bea and Hurlbert’s Portia show off their beautiful singing voices. Hammond’s deliciously over-the-top Nostradamus goes beyond the call of riotous duty.
The production is at its inspired best during the big, splashy dance numbers. When the comic invention wears thin, the staging pulls out all the stops. “Something Rotten!” may not earn a prominent place in theater history, but it will remind many musical lovers why they’d rather sit through a singing “Omelette” than a serious “Hamlet.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
In Costa Mesa: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 19. Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive. $29-$109. (714) 556-2787, scfta.org
In Los Angeles: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); opens Nov. 21, ends Dec. 31. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. $30-$140 (subject to change). (213) 972-4400, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes