All is Sweet in Playhouse’s SOMETHING ROTTEN!

REVIEW: A romping musical about musicals, SOMETHING ROTTEN! is the perfect production to ring in the 54th season of Playhouse on the Square

Welcome to the Renaissance!

It was an era of revival, of new ideas in art, architecture, politics, science and literature. And it was a time of great social change, a reawakening from the plagues and the Black Death that swept Europe during the 16th century.

Sound at all familiar? It should. And with Something Rotten!, the musical that opened August 19 (and runs through September 18) for Playhouse on the Square’s 54th season, all is pleasingly familiar. Announcing itself from its opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” the show and Playhouse’s production proclaims that theater – live performers, live music, live human energy, and laughter – is back. Really really back.

And under the direction and choreography of Broadway veteran and Memphis native Whitney Branan, it arrives with clever fun, a nonstop romp of hilarious, farcical absurdities, over-the-top performances and innuendos, with dozens of loving nods and skewering send-ups of Broadway shows classical and comical. The 2015 Tony-nominated Broadway musical from John O’Farrell and Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick takes place in 1590s Renaissance England, and follows the story of two brothers of a small theater troupe, Nick and Nigel Bottom. The Bottom brothers – see what they did there? – are desperate to write the next Big Idea to outplay their rival, William Shakespeare, the Bard whose latest Romeo and Juliet is the talk of the town. The Bard and his new play are adored by Nigel, but despised by his older brother Nick – “What’s so great about two lovers who kill themselves in the end?” – as he breaks into “God, I Hate Shakespeare.”

Nigel, the playwright, poet and eventual love-struck romantic, is played with rosy wonder and sincerity by Cristian Nieves. Cristian delivers the heart and conscience of the story – “ToThineOwnSelf” he sings in Act II – while the rest of the ensemble hungrily whirls around him. John Smiley plays the frustrated protagonist, Nigel’s brother Nick, who drives the narrative with just the right balance of seething insecurity and jealousy as he teeters between making a few extra coins for his wife Bea (played by a spirited and charismatic Lynden Lewis) and sinking into desperation in search of that Big Idea.

So desperate is he for this new idea, and true to Shakespearean fashion – the show is gloriously overstuffed with musical and Shakespearean references, quotes and allusions – Nick slinks off one evening to the alleys in search of a soothsayer and finds Nostradamus. The Nostradamus? “No, I’m his nephew. Thomas.”

Thomas Nostradamus – played here by a zany Jonathan Christian with big gestures and wide eyes, looking a bit like Benny Hill (minus the lechery) – convulses and conjures his vision of the future of the theater and declares… Musicals! “A Musical,” he sings. Musicals? “It appears to be a play,” Nostradamus squints, “where the dialogue stops and the plot is conveyed through song.”

And a musical about what exactly? Here Nostradamus delivers some of the show’s most delightful gifts, in its witticisms and non sequiturs, arbitrary visions of the future of the theater. A show about a Little shop… of whores? A show about Hair? And later, Cats! Yes! “A whole stage covered with singing cats!”

And finally, Nick asks, what will be Shakespeare’s greatest play? “I see it!,” says the soothsayer. It’s called… “Omelette!” And “something Danish,” and “Ham? That must be it.”

And in a musical about musicals, from here the show dives deep into wonderful absurdities and musical numbers filled with the nods and caricatures of all that we snicker, guffaw, love and cry over, and what astonishes and leaves us in awe about Broadway, all through the lens of 400 years of stage history. Decades of stage dances are here too – from the Can-Can to a Chorus Line, and even tap. Lots of tap! – routines and kicks and jazz hands the terrific ensemble brings us that are right in step with the clever zaniness of the show.   

But not before the appearance of the one and only Will of the People – William Shakespeare – who is introduced as the rock star of the Renaissance in front of adoring fans who cheer him on and repeat his best lines, quips and iambic pentameter. Here Shakespeare is played by John Maness, who inhabits and personifies the tones and moves of Brando and Elvis and LL Cool J all in one – It’s “Hard to Be the Bard” he sings – in black leather pants and a billowing white shirt unbuttoned to a chest of hair and gold chains. Rotten’s Will is pure machismo, a smugness that is cover for his own creative insecurities to outdo himself yet again, equally desperate for his next Big Idea. Maness plays him with sneaky bravado and a cockney-ish accent, and he steals the show. And true to the Bard’s reputed and disputed reputation, his Will doth tries to steal the brothers’ ideas as well.

Standout performers include an adorable Mikayla House, who plays Nigel’s love interest Portia (named for the character in The Merchant of Venice). Like her Merchant counterpart, she too is in love with poetry and Nigel’s humble heart – see what they did there?

Portia’s father, played by veteran Dave Landis, brings just the right antic stiffness to his role as the Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, who desperately tries to herd the entire proceedings – “the theaters are a scourge upon our land!” – and the star-crossed lovers Portia and Nigel from falling into the most unholy gateways to “lustful desires and fantasies of the flesh!”

The aforementioned Lynden Lewis, playing Nick’s wife Bea, delivering a hip-swinging women’s-lib version of Renaissance-era equality – “This is the nineties! We’ve got a woman on throne!”

And Curtis C Jackson, playing the Jewish debt collector Shylock, whose pointed resolve quickly devolves into fandom – “But what I really love is the theater” – with the idea of investing in Nick’s still-unrealized Big Idea, even though here in the roaring 1590s, its illegal.

But it’s all pure fun, and I found myself grinning and laughing throughout its entire two and a half hours. It’s the perfect antidote and escape from the world outside, a reminder that human kind has survived plagues and death before, bounced back with new ideas, and even had a little fun whilst at it.

Before the curtain even rose, I was reminded of how the theater has the potential of bringing out the best in us; full of wonder and anticipation, the kid in us side by side with the adult in us, ready to take in all that the live stage has to tell us, and take us away from.

And in that spirit, Playhouse’s Something Rotten does not disappoint.

For more information and tickets for Playhouse on the Square’s Something Rotten! and Playhouse’s 54th season, visit their website at Playhouse on the Square.

StoryBoard Memphis is proud to be a partnering with Playhouse on the Square for their 54th season. Patrons who make a donation of $250 or more will receive two tickets to Something Rotten! or any future show of this 54th Playhouse season.

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