Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Theatre Droppings: Thomas Nostradamus Invents The Musical

The producers of the musical Something Rotten! (and according to the program, there are about 112 of them) gambled big with their show, and it looks like it has worked out for them.  I saw the show many months ago, during its preview period, when its future was far from secure.
Brad Oscar's soothsayer (left) predicts the Next Big Thing: the Musical.  This sequence occurs about 20 minutes into the first act; the resulting song stops the show cold. I've truly never witnessed a standing ovation for a musical number in the middle of Act One, but apparently it's become a usual occurrence in Something Rotten!. An abbreviated version of the song was presented at the Tonys, but the full effect of this showstopper can only be witnessed in the theatre. (Another of the show's songs was featured a few weeks ago in these pages, go here if interested.)
The show was originally scheduled to premiere in Seattle, where the creators planned to work out any kinks and then, if all went well, move to New York. 
Brian d'Arcy James as Nick Bottom.
When the show's Seattle engagement
disappeared, James chose to withdraw
from Hamilton, where he was playing
George III, in order to lead this cast. 
Those plans went out the window when a theatre suddenly became available on Broadway;  noting the absence of a breakout new musical, they bypassed that out-of-town tryout and opened cold in New York.  This took some major stones, as Something Rotten! is that rare musical which is brand new.  It's not based on any existing work which might provide a pre-sold audience, it was cooked up from scratch.

The Bottom Brothers want to be on top. Something Rotten! is at its best when it's sending up the theatrical culture which it also celebrates. Shakespeare and musicals take the brunt of the kidding. There is a plot here, concerning two brothers who scheme to create something new while in the shadow of that Elizabethan horndog, the Bard.
Because nobody had ever heard of this thing, tickets were available for a song during the preview period, so I picked one up.  They were offering seats to their first few previews for only 20 bucks;  I can no longer afford to attend Broadway shows, even ones on the half-price board, but this was too good to pass up.  I saw the show's 3rd public performance, which included scenery bumping into itself and a couple of mangled lines. 
John Cariani and Kate Reinders play roles meant to provide
some romance. I recognized Cariani from his many TV
appearances, notably a recurring role of a forensics nerd in the
Law and Order franchise. He is also a playwright; his
Almost, Maine has become one of the most frequently
produced plays in recent years.
In one scene a platform slid in from stage left (it's called a wagon, but it isn't one, it's simply a flat platform that moves). Clearly it was supposed to land center stage and stop, but it hooked itself onto a standing flat and was stuck. There were a table and chairs on the wagon, where our two heroes were to play their next, interior scene. 
Heidi Blickenstaff plays Bea Bottom (the show is peppered with names like that). She's perhaps the only true belter on Broadway today (ok, there are a couple of screamers over at Wicked, but is that belting?). Heidi first caught my attention years ago when I attended the abysmal Addams Family musical during the final week of a very tired run. She was a replacement for  Mrs Beineke, and stole the show from stars Roger Rees and Brooke Shields. She is Something Rotten's voice of reason, and she gets to do a little Shakespearean crossdressing as well.
Brian d'Arcy James and John Cariani simply glanced at each other, shrugged, and moved the furniture off the platform and placed it on the flat stage where it was supposed to land. 
Christian Borle won the Tony
playing Shakespeare as an
ego-driven rock star. He was
the show's only Tony winner.
Of course, anytime something like this happens, the audience eats it up, particularly if the actors handle it with humor and professionalism (as these guys did). They were faced, however, with the problem of what to do with this furniture once the scene was over, since the wagon could not return to the stage to remove it. James took the lead and, while continuing the dialogue of the scene, simply slid the table, then each chair, off-stage. Thunderous applause.
In a fairly convoluted plot twist, Shakespeare disguises himself as an itinerant player and auditions for the Bottom Brothers' show. At the preview I attended, Christian Borle mangled his "audition speech" pretty badly, but gamely went back to correct himself with the ad lib "Let me do this again. I really want this job." The house roared approval
Who cares about such mistakes, particularly at a preview?  Our audience surely didn't. Despite the various mishaps, the cast was clearly having a ball, so we did too. Something Rotten! is not the greatest musical out there (it runs out of steam a bit in Act Two), but is certainly great fun and deserves a long, healthy run.