There have been quite a few attempts to turn Shakespearean plays into musicals over the years, with varying degrees of success, but it’s far less frequent to find a musical that features Shakespeare as a character, let alone the villain.
Welcome to the world of “Something Rotten!,” the 2015 musical that tells the story of the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, as they attempt to stage the world’s first musical in order to compete with their rival, rock star playwright William Shakespeare. After a successful, Tony-nominated run, the national tour comes to Austin this week, thanks to Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts, and will be playing through June 4 at Bass Concert Hall.
“Something Rotten!,” with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, displays a mix of various influences, from Disney animation to envelope-pushing musicals like “The Producers” and “The Book of Mormon.” Karey Kirkpatrick, in fact, began his career at Disney Animation, while Nicholaw was co-director of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway. (Read more about the “Something Rotten” origin story.)
Set against a fairy tale-esque interpretation of Elizabethan England (brought to vivid life by Scott Pask’s cartoon-influenced scenic design), the show features a panoply of references and homages to the history of musical theater, alongside broad, ribald, deliberately offensive humor of the kind found more recently on the Broadway stage.
Part of the plot revolves around contrasting splashy, empty, meaningless musicals against art that comes directly from the heart — yet the show unfortunately chooses to embrace the former over the latter at every opportunity.
Fortunately, the very human and surprisingly nuanced performances in the production redeem it from the cynically conflicting messages of the text. Rob McClure, as Nick, plays the Zero Mostel-like lead whose own conniving threatens to undo him, even though he means well at heart. Pierce Cassedy, as the sensitive, head-in the-clouds Nigel, bounces wonderfully off McClure’s manic energy, giving the leading duo a marvelous chemistry (that, once more, reminds one of the leading men from “The Producers”).
The supporting characters are also given many opportunities to steal the show, especially Blake Hammond as the soothsayer Nostradamus, who manages to be over-the-top (in all the right ways) in an already over-the-top production. For the character of Shakespeare, the play demands a charming conniver who can give off a rock star vibe, and Adam Pascal (“Rent”) has the perfect personal gravitas and star persona to pull that off delightfully.
Though the story and script of “Something Rotten!” often leave something to be desired, an immensely talented cast picks up the slack to help create a piece of purely enjoyable entertainment, with all the Broadway frills one could ask for.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Update: This story was updated to correct the name of the actor who played Nigel at Tuesday’s performance.