Simultaneously spoofing Shakespeare and Broadway musicals, Something Rotten! (book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O’Farrell; music and lyrics by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick), now playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, is a livewire concoction that eggs an audience on to enjoying some exceedingly cheesy comedy.
The setup: In the charmingly creative era of 1590s Renaissance England — evoked in Gregg Barnes’ colorful period costumes — the unsuccessful Bottom brothers playwriting team, Nick (Jeffrey Shankle) and Nigel (Ben Ribler), unhappily compare their lowly status to that of the famous Will Shakespeare (Justin Calhoun). The rather dyspeptic Nick sings of hating his renowned competitor, but is fresh out of ideas and subsidies for whatever his next production might be.
Younger brother Nigel, optimistic and cheerful, when not excessively anxious, has actual writing talent, of which Nick is all too dismissive. The rock of the family is Nick’s proto-feminist wife Bea (Janine Sunday), who has stage presence to burn and delivers her first act song, “Right Hand Man,” with an admirable belt. She has some fun beard and pants moments later in the show.
So what is a second-string playwright to do? Nick consults a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (Jordan B. Stockdale), the less competent nephew of the legendary French seer, who comes up with an innovative concept: a play where actors suddenly break into song. In “A Musical,” Nostradamus dynamically leads the ensemble in showing Nick the possibilities of this unheard-of form, with plentiful references to actual 20th-century musicals.
A word about the ensemble: In classic Broadway singing and dancing form, the group plays a variety of roles — actors, Puritans, pop concert fans, etc. — with unstinting energy and lots of smiles. While director/choreographer Mark Minnick’s dance ideas are often repetitive — lots of jumping, clapping, with active arms everywhere — the ensemble gives the audience all the pizazz it might want, even in a brief number celebrating the Black Death.
The show includes an underdeveloped romantic subplot involving Nigel and Portia (Marina Yiannouris), daughter of the nasty local Puritan leader, Brother Jeremiah (Adam Grabau). Portia is played as a super-ditsy ingénue, complete with the most annoying Broadway show laugh this side of Gertie Cummings in Oklahoma!, another musical that insisted on tacking an exclamation point onto its title. They promptly, awkwardly get over-the-top hot and bothered for each other, played in a way so broad and drawn out as to diminish its comic effect.
It’s not until the latter stages of the first act that the real star — not only of his era but of this production — has his moment. That would be Shakespeare, every bit a charismatic, ego-first, pop/rock star — not to mention shameless plagiarist — who excites the imagination of the crowd, which swoons like a bunch of teenagers at an Elvis concert. In “Will Power,” Calhoun shows off his triple-threat chops to good effect, as he does again in “Hard to Be the Bard” at the beginning of act two. The show is at its best when featuring Shakespeare and company.
At one point Nick says that there’s “a whole second act to sort out.” That’s been a chronic problem for many musicals, and Something Rotten! is no exception, losing steam after intermission. Nostradamus has foreseen that Shakespeare’s next great hit will be “Omlette” (oops), for which Nick seeks financing from the theater-loving Shylock (Robert Biedermann), played as a Jewish stereotype satirizing Jewish stereotypes.
“Make an Omlette,” the centerpiece of Nick’s show, features frying pans, eggs, and a lengthy list of allusions to famous musicals. Some of the references work well: there’s an off-pitch horn fanfare referencing the Gypsy overture, and ensemble member Patricia Targete, as a dancing egg, has a nice bit with “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” until she is cracked (that’s a yolk, literally in the staging). But the list comes to feel labored after a while. As an intentionally preposterous production number, it will not make anyone forget “Springtime for Hitler.”
Meanwhile, there are further complications in the Nigel/Portia romance and some sibling rivalry between Nick and Nigel, which Bea has to sort out. The brothers sing “To Thine Own Self Be True” (sincerely, rather than ironically, as in Polonius’s speech in Hamlet, but hey, this is a musical), finding therein the key to happiness and reconciliation.
The production is a visually pleasing one. In addition to the costumes, which would be the hit of any Renaissance Festival, Lynn Joslin’s lighting design is detailed and precise, moving well with the actors. The design uses lights that are raised and lowered in varied colors at times to accent a scene. Minnick’s direction consistently makes the action available to all seating areas in Toby’s in-the-round configuration. Ross Scott Rawlings leads the live band that capably accompanies the proceedings.
Something Rotten! lives up to its billing as a bit of audience-pleasing fluff, with a talented cast — everyone sings and moves well — and excellent production values that the full house at Toby’s clearly appreciated. To quote an even funnier show not mentioned in the production, tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Something Rotten! plays through March 19, 2023, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD. Tickets ($74–$79 for adults, $57–$60 for children 5–12, and $62.50 for seniors over age 65 for Tuesday and Wednesday performances) can by calling 410-730-8311 or online.