Austin Shakespeare drafts a Cleopatra for the ages

The blazing news that stands out from the recently announced Austin Shakespeare season is the return of beloved actor and University of Texas professor Fran Dorn in a staged reading of “Antony and Cleopatra” in October (dates to be announced).
Erik Mathew and Fran Dorn in Austin Shakespeare’s production of “Medea,” 2016. Contributed by Bret Brookshire
Otherwise, the mid-sized theater company splits its main season between the Bard and other classically inspired dramatic literature.
The free Shakespeare in the Park option will be “The Merchant of Venice” in May 2019 at Zilker Park. The Young Shakespeare selection is “Macbeth” in June 2019 at the Curtain, the Elizabethan-style theater out on Lake Austin.
The 20th-century choices are Tennessee Williams‘ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (November-December) and Tom Stoppard‘s “Indian Ink” (February 2019). Luckily, much can be found about both playwrights in the archives of the Ransom Center.
Austin Shakespeare also plans a collaboration with the Austin Chamber Music Festival in the summer of 2019.
Still left on the 2017-2018 docket are the chamber music joint effort over scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (July 22); “Shakespeare and All That Jazz” at Parker Jazz Club (July 8); and the remaining run of its Young Shakespeare “Hamlet” at the Curtain (through June 24).

Bawdy humor, Shakespeare and Broadway glitz – ‘Something Rotten!’ has it all

Adam Pascal, center, plays Shakespeare in “Something Rotten!,” which comes to Bass Concert Hall May 30-June 4 as part of Broadway in Austin. Contributed by Jeremy Daniel

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
Cost: $25-$125

Update: This story was updated to correct the name of the actor who played Nigel at Tuesday’s performance.