Much like the Black Plague, the joy the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of Something Rotten! emanates is unexpectedly infectious. The show is a Renaissance feast for the eyes, ears, and whatever organ processes jokes, thanks to set, lighting, and costume design that match the musical’s tone — a farce that both riffs on and celebrates traditional tropes — in addition to irresistibly bright performances in both leading and ensemble roles.
Under Frank D. Shutts II’s direction, the show mimics tradition but represents its knownness with joyous glee that leans in and out of satiricism. This is wonderfully manifested in the show’s set design from the get-go expository number, “Welcome to the Renaissance.” Set designers Jim Hutzler and Jeff Nesmeyer have built Tudor village–style, theater-esque structures at the back of the stage, and at stage right and left; the central structure opens up to an image of the Globe Theatre when the script calls for it to add a sense of scale. Two window shutter-like panels with a Tudor architectural influence and flower boxes to boot (think Fantasyland) flank the stage and invite the audience into the Elizabethan yet offbeat world of the show.
This set design and Ken and Patti Crowley’s lighting design unite in the vividly-lit backdrop behind the Globe structure, which often takes on a vivid, unexpected color. It jumps from brilliant cerulean, to a red-orange, or in the show’s more satirical moments, to a groovy fuschia. Other lighting design echoes this with unexpected colors illuminating the actors’ equally off-the-wall performances, like a scarlet pumpkin hue and turquoise jade.
Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley’s costume design unites with this approach. And their work is truly prolific — the show’s sketch-comedy-style bits and casts-within-casts give the sense that there are hundreds of characters here, and the number of costume changes to accent the show’s chorus lines of Londoners, can-can girls, and eggs (yep… eggs with legs). And of course the Disney-like colors in many of the dresses and doublets aren’t historically accurate, but the wacky coloring of clothing design that mentally checks out historically creates their appeal. In the original animated Beauty and the Beast, Belle was the only villager wearing blue in her village, which was an intentional move to make her stick out. In this production of Something Rotten!, everyone’s wearing something that makes them stick out. Where’s the comedy in brown?
These visual allusions to history and tradition make for a solid history-based traditional foundation for the show’s comedic hijinks to unfold without the ridiculous characters, dialogue, and storyline feeling narratively disorganized. The show comments on the modern era not by entering it but by satirizing elements of Elizabethan English culture. This is most effectively done by painting that long-past culture as more colorful and occasionally extreme while comparing it to our own, and the Little Theater has executed this wonderfully.
Visuals this aligned with the show’s ethos require actors who are willing to be the same, and this ebullient cast does just that. Matt Liptak is sincere and sympathetic as the show’s straight man, Nick Bottom, who’s doing his best to succeed as a writer despite the uproarious success of his rival, Shakespeare. Liptak earnestly plays an everyman who’s doing his best to work as an artist in a world that feels rigged against him. His wife, Bea, played by the exuberant Anna Phillips-Brown as a fiery, red-haired fireball who won’t take no for an answer, will do anything to support her husband and their baby on the way — even scooping excrement out of the street to make money for her husband (she mentions that a recent promotion got her a bucket!). To boot, Nick’s sweet but stubborn brother and thespian co-conspirator, Nigel (played pitch-perfectly by Jack Dalrymple), is running off with a girl whose father won’t let them marry. And worst of all, there’s Shakespeare, played as a gyrating goth rocker dressed in leather from head to toe by Noah Mutterperl. (Imagine a wildly insecure Rum Tum Tugger with a goatee and Twitter microcelebrity status that defines his self-worth.)
The only character totally on Nick’s side for a bit, it seems, is the soothsayer Nostradamus, played by Chuck Dluhy, who delivers a Broadway-quality performance — which perfectly fits the many references to existing Broadway properties that the character must pull off in “A Musical” and during the performance of Nick’s show. (The Little Theatre gives you a checklist of shows that Something Rotten! references along with your program.) And who could forget Evan Zimmerman, whose variety of ensemble characters and dependably hilarious hijinx turn the ever-present crowd of background characters into more than just a visual plot-device amalgam to fill space, but rather a band of individuals with feelings — of riotous merry men with tremendous entertainment value.
These actors’ fluency in line delivery and willingness to indulge in gloriously cartoonish antics in their performances sell the show. It is their exaggerated performances — made capable by their tremendous performance skills — that bring the show to life.
The show does occasionally musically teeter, when its live orchestra (located behind the stage, seemingly with only the sound of actors singing to serve as a cue… what a challenge) doesn’t always seem to come down exactly on beat, or feels unsteady as acts transition. Some actors also occasionally don’t project as well as they need to, which makes the orchestra also feel too loud. I found myself leaning in to try to hear the dialogue as best I could on several occasions — they’re singing and joking their hearts out up there and need audio tech worthy of their excellence!
On a related note, some of the singers feel like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew given the vivid expressiveness required of their roles, and the excellence of other aspects of their performance. Matt Liptak’s singing is always on-key, but his excellent vocal projection makes one expect vibrato, and disappointed when it doesn’t come. The kinetics of Noah Mutterperl’s performance as Shakespeare are more than enough for his character to work in the electric fashion the script demands, but he doesn’t always milk the hilarious lyrics his character is given for all they’re worth in his vocal work, and his physical work during moments of “Hard to Be the Bard” at his desk. But you barely notice any of this amidst all the fun.
I’ve been hoping to see Something Rotten! for several years now, since learning about it shortly before COVID hit — and memorizing Shakespeare’s two songs and making them my English major pride ballads — and the Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production was the perfect way to experience this show in all its ludicrous glory for the first time.
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
COVID Safety: LTA requires all persons attending performances to provide proof of full Covid vaccination and to wear a mask inside LTA (including during the performance). LTA’s complete COVID-19 Attendance Policy is here.
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell
Music & lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick
Produced by Rachel Alberts, Bobbie Herbst, and Russell Wyland
Directed by Frank D. Shutts II
Music direction by Christopher A. Tomasino
Choreography by Stefan Sittig