Something Rotten: A Tale of Two Reviews

Gil, Pevec, Zabilka. Photo credit Veronica Slavin.

Something Rotten is a quintessential musical, reminiscent of the glory days about, of all people, Shakespeare, playing at Thousand Oaks’ massive Kavli Theatre in the BofA Performing Arts Center for the last two weekends.  In for a short run, the newly minted “5 Star Theatricals” production bristled with energy under the direction of Richard Israel with off-stage orchestra directed by Anthony Lucca.  I mention them first, because they are instrumental to the West Coast success of this engaging musical based on events about the writing of Shakespeare’s most enduring tragedy, Hamlet.  

What, you say?  A musical about a tragedy?  That’s right!  The Kirkpatrick brothers, who wrote the music and book with John O’Farrell, know their way around musicals, but more importantly, they know their Shakespeare, too. The book is chock-full of skewered lines and Shakespearean jokes turned on their heads for the 21st century.

Something Rotten envisions Shakespeare (Aleks Pevek) as a Rock Star who shamelessly plagiarizes his hit plays from others’ work (yes, he really did that).  Two of his company members, Nick and Nigel Bottom (Justin Michael Wilson and Frankie Zabilka respectively), are fledgling playwrights, but Nick is fresh out of ideas.  He resorts to a sooth-sayer (Randy Brenner as Nostradamus). Since the seer can see the future (ours), he predicts that “Omelette” will be an enduring play for the ages and it will usher in a new form called a meee-you-sickle!.

Viewing the Elizabethan theatrical world through a modern lens provides enough humor, yet casting the entire show as a “meee-you-sicle!” leads anachronistically backwards through 20th century Broadway. And this may explain two distinctly different reactions from critics.

When Something Rotten opened on Broadway in April, 2015, the New York Times’ premiere critic, Ben Brantley, wrote: “Something Rotten, the rambunctious new show that opened on Wednesday night at the St. James Theater, dances dangerously on the line between tireless and tedious, and winds up collapsing into the second camp.” Despite that inauspicious beginning, the show went on to run for nearly two years.  However, it fell well short of making back the extravagant 14 million dollars plowed into the production; therefore, the show embarked on a touring schedule to make up for it.

Fast forward to the present, and 5 Star Theatricals on the West Coast: reviewer Even Henerson wrote: “if a playgoer knows anything about Shakespeare and/or musicals, then for sheer inventiveness, sweetness and curtain-to-curtain smiles, ROTTEN! has you covered. Director Richard Israel‘s production for 5-Star Theatricals at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza checks every box and does so deliciously”. 

Director Isreal’s fresh take, with a new cast boasting an abundance of West Coast-oriented performers, has revitalized the show and brought into balance the backwards and forwards aspects of musical/Shakespearean references. After all, who can resist Michelle Elkin’s wonderful tap numbers that are created apropos of nothing?