Review: Something Rotten! @ St James Theatre ****

Before seeing Something Rotten! back in December, my hopes were high. Like the high note at the end of ‘Defying Gravity’ high. I’d heard a few songs, loved what I heard and liked the whole idea. A musical about Shakespeare, what could go wrong?! It’s a lot of fun with some clever moments and killer references. But there’s just too much going on which can detract from the plot. Shakespeare references and musical references and references to eggs…? In my dads words, it was a little…over egged.

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Set in the Renaissance, we see the Bottom brothers trying to forge their way in the theatre industry. But they’re up against tough competition in the form of a little known bard, you may have heard of him: Shakespeare. In an attempt to bring home the bacon for the family, Nick goes to see a soothsayer to predict the next big thing. But will he end up with…egg on his face?

I’m having way too much fun with these puns.

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Brian d’Arcy James and the cast of Something Rotten!

Which is where we reach the first problem. There’s just so much going on. The song ‘Make an Omlette’ has a Dreamgirls reference, quotes from Hamlet, all interspersed with egg puns?! What?! I mean it’s hilarious but it has your brain darting about from thing to thing. Only on listening to it again do you get half the egg references, because my brain was tuned into Shakespeare. In Omlette, the musical within the musical, Nick is given the basic outlines of a plot which falls to wayside amidst the whole ‘breakfast theme’. Unfortunately the same is true for Something Rotten:! you have amazing musical numbers, but the plot just seems fitted around them. Like it’s an afterthought. One interesting plot point is Bea, a pre-post modern woman fighting for her rights. She only gets a few looks in here and there, becoming the very thing she declares she despises in her big number: ‘sure I could stay in the background, just smiling every now and again’. We see little of her until the end, in a contrived plot point. Which is a shame, because Heidi Blickenstaff was brilliant in the role.

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John Cariani as Nigel, Brian d’Arcy James as Nick, and Heidi Blickenstaff as Bea.

To the show’s credit, it does have an incredible soundtrack. ‘A Musical’, ‘Hard to be the Bard’, and ‘God I Hate Shakespeare’ are all stand out numbers, with catchy snatches and pun after pun abounding. ‘Right Hand Man’ is a good one, giving hope to a feminist plot which is underegged. The big number before the interval is decent, but the tap dance overshadows it. And ‘Welcome to the Renaissance’ is decent, though annoys me on principal because that’s not how you pronounce the word. It’s that and other things which make me wonder how it would fare in a West End transfer…would they have to change the opening number’s entire beat to fit the british pronunciation? Or would they keep American accents…in a play set England…being performed in England…and probably by British actors…?

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Christian Borle as William Shakespeare.

Christian Borle shines as Shakespeare. If you had asked me before who could ever play a cocky, indulgent, rock star Bard, weirdly I would have said Borle. And if you don’t believe me, watch clips from Peter and the Starcatcher. His presence on stage is electric, so much so that you find yourself one of his so many fans with so many demands! Brian d’Arcy James makes for an arrogant but admirable Nick Bottom, with D’arcy bringing a sympathetic side to this otherwise rather annoying character. His and Borle’s tap dance off is a highlight. John Cariani plays younger brother Nigelo with a sweetness and naivety; his breakaway moment as a character and actor is ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’. Blickenstaff and Kate Reinders round out the cast as Bea and Portia. Blickenstaff makes for a confident female lead and belts her big number with heart and humour. Reinders is slightly shrill though that’s more her characterisation, but her scenes with Cariani are adorable and the pay off in ‘I Love the Way’ is played brilliantly by both.

Verdict: an impressive soundtrack and cast, but let down by a confused narrative. Something Rotten! has had greatness thrust upon it, but doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Something Rotten! is playing at the St James Theatre, with tickets available through to September 2016 as of writing. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the website.

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