Chicago’s historic Oriental Theatre was built with gilt for audiences who may or may not have had much gold in their pockets. When it opened in 1926 as a movie palace, anyone who could afford the price of a ticket could enter. Following the fate of many urban cinemas, it closed its doors in 1981 – and then reopened in 1998, restored and repurposed for live theatrical productions.
Tickets to a Broadway-scale show cost a lot more than movie tickets, of course. But the New York hit, SOMETHING ROTTEN, brings an entertainment-for-all vibe to the Oriental. Whether loaded with gold or not, the audience that streamed through the palace doors on Thursday night seemed ready for fun. Like a B-movie on a hot summer night, SOMETHING ROTTEN neither taxes the brain nor stresses the heart.
Broadway in Chicago production includes New York leads
Nick Rashad Burroughs as the Minstrel and his exuberant cohorts define the show’s zany world with “Welcome to the Renaissance.” Hampered by fuzzy audio in the opening number, the cast still manages to convey most of the clever lyrics: “Holy Crusade, Bubonic plague…That was so Middle Ages, so Charlemagne!” But this is now the Renaissance “where everything is new” and everyone worships Shakespeare.
Well, almost everyone. SOMETHING ROTTEN presents Nick and Nigel Bottom, two Elizabethan Era brothers who write unsuccessful dramas in the tall shadow of Shakespeare. Reprising their Broadway roles in this touring production, Rob McClure plays the feisty and resentful Nick, Josh Grisetti as his lanky, poetic brother and Adam Pascal (of RENT fame) as Shakespeare in full rock star mode.
SOMETHING ROTTEN riffs high and low
With music and lyrics by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, SOMETHING ROTTEN riffs high and low as it interweaves references to Shakespearean drama and modern American musicals. The Kirkpatricks and O’Farrell have concocted an extended in-joke accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of theater.
“God, I hate Shakespeare,” fumes Nick. “His plays are wordy/…the little turd“, plus he’s “a hack/With a knack/For stealing anything he can.” Wrong about many things, Nick is right about Shakespeare’s penchant for “borrowing” ideas from others. That includes Nigel who stores his draft of “To be or not to be” and other jottings in his codpiece.
Desperate for success, Nick visits Thomas Nostradamus, nephew of the 16th century soothsayer, and pays him to forecast the future. Nostradamus predicts that Shakespeare’s next hit will include a Danish and an “omelette.” He also predicts a newfangled entertainment called a musical. The combination sets Nick and Nigel off on a journey that’s packed with hints of musicals to come, shameless anachronisms and plenty of subplots.
Highbrow and lowbrow pleasures at SOMETHING ROTTEN
Despite the merriment, SOMETHING ROTTEN left this viewer yearning for the story’s puzzle pieces to fit more comfortably together in Act II. Also unsatisfying was the show’s tendency to skim the surface of its source material instead of taking deeper jabs. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE’s controversial Jewish moneylender Shylock is reimagined here as a theatrical investor. He’s amusing but the conceit, like Shakespeare as a superstar, doesn’t move beyond superficial shtick.
Shakespeare knew about catering to the general public and so do the creators of SOMETHING ROTTEN. While not a musical for the ages, SOMETHING ROTTEN offers pleasures both highbrow and lowbrow for those who love theatre enough to poke some fun at it.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: an excerpt of this review appears in Theater in Chicago.
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Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.