Finally, Pioneer Theater Company has opened its pandemic-delayed production of the Shakespearian parody Something rotten! And with world news going from bad to worse every day, this shameless musical feels like a welcome vacation, with a show that delivers a surprisingly satisfying marriage of sophomore comedy and clever puns.
The 2015 Broadway hit, co-created by Karey Kirkpatrick with brother Wayne (music and lyrics) and John O’Farrell (book), follows the misadventures of Elizabethan-era brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom as they attempt to snatch some glory from their nemesis, Will Shakespeare.
Encouraged by the neighborhood soothsayer, Nick becomes convinced that the brothers’ ticket to fame is a whole new genre in which, get it, actors start singing. The troupe will surpass Shakespeare in raising the plot of the bard’s next big hit. Unfortunately, the diviner’s prophecy is slightly muddled, so instead of Hamlet, we get the breakfast musical Omelette. A barrage of theatrical references and jokes ensue.
The score is a cheerful pastiche that simultaneously parodies and celebrates the touchstones of musical theatre, from Meredith Willson and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Larson. (As a bonus, there’s a cadenza in “Hard to Be the Bard” that’s taken straight from Queen’s hit “Somebody to Love.”) Tracks like “A Musical” and “It’s Eggs!” provide a fun test of the audience’s knowledge of musical theatre, while a few songs, such as the energetic opener “Welcome to the Renaissance”, stand on their own.
Matt Farcher finds nuance in the role of harassed Nick; he is desperate to pay the bills and seethes with resentment at Shakespeare’s success, but is driven by genuine concern for his wife, Bea, and reluctant affection for his brother. Farcher might laugh when his character goes into Stentorian “actor mode,” but his powerful voice helps elevate the show above mere farce.
Daniel Plimpton also delivers a well-shaded performance as the nerdy idealist Nigel. He is so serious and nice that you want him to succeed. Musically and dramatically, he has wonderful chemistry with Farcher and with Lexi Rabadi, who perfectly plays the ingenuous role of Portia, a puritan mad about poetry. Galyana Castillo, as indomitable Bea, invests her role with warmth, determination and the tips of a pop diva.
One of the keys to this show is that almost none of the characters have a clue that what they’re saying is the least bit funny. The exception is Matthew Hydzik’s delightfully over-the-top portrayal of Shakespeare. He struts, struts, and struts like Jim Morrison, Freddie Mercury, and Elvis Presley rolled into one, at one point turning the opening line of Richard III in a glorious song.
PTC Artistic Director Karen Azenberg, as the director and choreographer of this show, leans into broad humor and never passes up an opportunity for a dance break. (The topical touches in “The Black Death” number work particularly well.) The 11-piece pit orchestra led by Helen Gregory backs the singers with verve.
Patrick Holt’s fun costume designs include probably the largest collection of codfish ever assembled on a Utah stage. And George Maxwell’s set design incorporates a clever and touching tribute to the late Fred Adams, the founder of the Utah Shakespeare Festival who did more than anyone to popularize the Bard’s work in that state.
Something rotten! plays through March 12 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theater; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org.