Humor and spectacle take center stage in Broadway Across America’s ‘Something Rotten’

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a true musical comedy on stage. Sure, there’s plenty of satire, plenty of serious musicals with funny moments, but the true goofy, ribald, laugh-em-ups are a dying breed. Luckily, Something Rotten! provides just the laughs you’re looking for, with a comical look at 1590s England, and two men making a musical about eggs. It’s grand spectacle, featuring a skilled cast and some toe-tapping tunes, that, while never exploring major themes, also never takes itself too seriously.

As Something Rotten! begins, we’re transported to Renaissance England, where several playwrights of the era are doing their best work, but none more so than the talk of town, William Shakespeare. The bard’s shadow looms large over all these writers, and our play follows two of them, Nick and Nigel Bottom, who have the talent and gumption, just never the opportunity to create the next big thing. To find the way to one-up Shakespeare, they enlist the help of a wacky sooth-Sayer named Thomas Nostradamus (who declares he “has just as much talent as his famous uncle”), to discover the next big thing in theatre. What they discover is the strange form of art known as “The Musical”, and from there we’re taken on a wild ride through the history of musical history, in a daffy downward spiral through songs about the Black Death and eggs, all culminating in a climactic production of “Omelet: The Musical!”.

Something Rotten! truly excels with its sense of spectacle. Though at first the play keeps things simple, with quick wit, humor, and goofy pratfalls, but by the time we reach the show-stopping number “A Musical”, a wild ride through the history of musical theatre, things ramp to eleven, and we’re presented with everything from tap dance to chorus lines to elaborate set changes. This is taken to an even higher level as the show reaches is climax, the absolutely jaw-dropping titular song, which gives us even more references to famous musicals, as well as dancing eggs, cowboys, chimney sweeps, and even an actual recipe for omelets. The energy is kept at high throughout, keeping the audience enthralled through the final ovation.

In the play’s early stages, we see Rob McClure’s Nick Bottom as a lovable jerk, with his skill for humor on full display, but it’s not until the play reached the latter parts of the first act that we truly get to see the talents that made this man a Tony award nominee. When he’s allowed to let loose his skills, we find him an incredible tap dancer, a skilled vocalist, and hilarious physical actor, showing him to be a true Renaissance man. The choreography throughout is on point, but McClure’s skills cannot be denied, pulling off intricate sequences that most comedic actors wouldn’t even attempt. His over-the-top personality fits in perfectly with the rest of the cast, making him the perfect foil to his John Grisetti’s softer, more romantic Nigel Bottom, and the perfect companion to the lovably energetic performance by Maggie Lakis as Bea.

We cannot, of course, talk about this production of Something Rotten! without mentioning the star at its center. It was a smart choice to cast a marquee name such as Adam Pascale, a well-known name throughout the world thanks to his performance as Roger in most original productions of “Rent”, as the bigger-than-life William Shakespeare. His chops are on full display here, with his singing and dancing second-to-none, but what truly surprises here is his talent for humor. The character he plays is so haughty and grandiose that it requires that the actor give their 200%  to it just to make it believable, and Pascal is more than up to the task. He pushes so much energy into his performance at Shakespeare that he bursts at the seams with it, each gesture and phrasing eliciting torrents of giggles throughout the theatre, and when he takes on a disguise to infiltrate the Bottom Brothers’ production, things only get more fun. It’s a well measured performance, that fits perfectly within the loom of the show to create a colorful piece of the rich tapestry that is Something Rotten!

With so many big names and personalities taking center stage in Something Rotten!, we mustn’t forget the fine work being done by its supporting cast. In particular, Blake Hammond as Thomas Nostradamus, the nephew of the real Nostradamus, whose talent for broad humor cannot be understated. He arrives on the scene with the amazing number “A Musical”, and brings major laughs with every future appearance, whether it be from his slapstick physicality, or from his frequent non-sequiturs on musical history. Also pulling out nice work is Jeff Brooks as Shylock, who wants to be remembered by Shakespeare as “the really nice Jew”, and who brings an equal sense of sarcasm and sweetness that we don’t find in many places in the piece, making his appearance in his handfuls of scenes a delight. We should also take a moment to appreciate the work being pulled off by Maggie Lakis as Nick’s wife Bea, who wows with her first number “Right Hand Man”, and only gets better from there, as she dons male disguises in order to get work in the male-dominated culture in which she lived, creating many comical situations.

There’s nothing especially deep or meaningful in Something Rotten!, and that’s okay. There’s space in every diet for a little fluff and sweetness, and Something Rotten! is that big piece of chocolate cake. A laugh riot, this goofy, shiny, and highly entertaining journey into a wildly inaccurate Elizabethan England brings a talented cast together to care a fine slice of sweet, sweet theatrical pleasure.

‘The Little Mermaid’: First act flounders, but talent bubbles to the surface

Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most celebrated and loved animated films in history, so it was only a matter of time before it made its way to the Broadway Stage. Now, Broadway Across America has brought the Broadway hit to Austin, along with everyone’s favorite characters, scenes, and song. It also brings with it new story lines and songs, with diminishing returns, some of which turn out to be home runs, and some don’t quite rise to reach classic status.

Where the piece falls apartment, more than anything is on the production side of things. Compared to the spectacle of the other Disney musicals, “The Little Mermaid” falls short, especially in its first half. Numbers like “Under the Sea”, the show’s most well-known number, could be much more powerful if given the same treatment as the Lion King’s “Circle of Life”, but as it’s presented on stage, it lacks a certain energy or verve. It doesn’t help that “The Little Mermaid” is the one of the vibrant and lively of Disney’s creations, which has the added limitation of taking place mostly under the water, but one can’t help but think steps could have been taken to make the numbers more energetic or original. It’s endemic of most the plays problems, as scenes with take place against blank backgrounds, when they could have been given much more dynamic environments.

The play is at its best when its characters are in motion, during the various dancing moments, and in particular swimming scenes, and no performer is more in touch with their body than Allison Wood as Ariel. Graceful, lithe, and compact, each movement she makes speaks to her character, with each little swirl, each sway of her hips or flutter of her feet creating meaning and purpose. Her crystal-clear voice also helps to sell her childish innocence, as do her wide, expressive eyes. It all comes together to create one of the most memorable characters in the piece.

Though its romantic leads do a fine job, the real star of this show s Melvin Abston as Sebastian. Playing the jittery, but still caring confidante, he brings an exuberance to the role that’s practically contagious. Vocally, he also carries his songs well, his textured baritone becoming the best parts of numbers like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”, which lose steam on the production side of things. The stage always becomes a little brighter when he’s on stage, and he saves many moments that simply wouldn’t stand without the power of his performance.

There’s plenty to love in Broadway Across America’s “The Little Mermaid”, especially for anyone who comes with their childlike whimsy intact and their nostalgia goggles firmly planted. In particular, several of the performances are truly accomplished, especially that of our leads and Melvin Abston as Sebastian. However, the play fails to rise to the level of Broadway spectacle present in productions like “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast”, and makes lazy choices in many sections. In the end, it’s not quite worth it for the investment, though classic Disney fans will find plenty to love.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy of Theatre Under The Stars