The play within a play: A classic device Shakespeare employed so many times that it’s a perfect fit for a show that combines theatre’s two favorite things: the Bard and musicals.
“Something Rotten,” which opened at Starlight Theatre on Tuesday, is on its first national tour since debuting on Broadway in 2015, and the professionalism shows.
Its grand sets, Elizabethan-with-an-edge costumes and Broadway-veteran actors treat the audience to a polished, funny, wink-heavy sendup of those two crowd-pleasing pillars of the stage.
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In 1595, playwright brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom are trying to make it big in the shadow of Shakespeare. Then it turns out Shakespeare is doing a play similar to theirs, and they are left scrambling for a new idea.
Driven to desperation, Nick asks Nostradamus (well, his nephew — Thomas) to look into the future to find out what kind of plays are the next big thing. The answer: musicals.
So Nick sets out on a “Producers”-esque quest to get a musical off the ground, trying out various ideas like Black Death, the musical, and a breakfast food-themed take on “Hamlet.”
In all of this, the show is hanging a lampshade on the silliness of a play in which people spontaneously break into song and dance, even while being that very type of play and bombarding the audience with nods to basically every famous musical of the past fifty years.
Nigel, the soulful poet of the duo, provides the romantic heart of the plot when he falls for a Puritan girl, Portia. The two adorably geek out over their love for the Bard and stand for the power of being true to yourself.
Shakespeare himself is the villain, a rockstar in a tight, shiny doublet with a spiky metal collar. He’s afraid of being washed up and resorts to deception to get his hands on some juicy new lines.
The music and dance play directly into classic Broadway tropes. Chorus lines, tap dancing, songs about what the characters want. There’s nothing innovative or experimental about it, but that’s the point in a show celebrating the form.
The actors, from the stars down to the ensemble, look, sound and act great. Josh Grisetti’s Nigel is naïve and loveable. Rob McClure’s Nick convincingly heads down the dark path of antiheroic ambition but then takes the lead on big, cheesy, ensemble numbers without losing the character.
Autumn Hurlbert brings a Kristen Chenoweth-esque, bubbly, childlike vivacity to her role as Portia, the Puritan ingénue. And Maggie Lakis is so fun as Nick’s go-getter wife Bea that it’s a shame her role isn’t bigger.
Adam Pascal, famous for originating the role of Roger in “Rent,” is a great casting choice for Shakespeare as imagined here, a megastar quipping his own lines off to adoring fans, yet still struggling with doing the work that got him the fame in the first place. He’s a villain you can’t help but root for.
“Something Rotten” can perhaps best be summed up by the tall metal spikes rising out Shakespeare’s collar—a basis in pedigree and history, but proudly flaunting its silliness for all to see.
“Something Rotten!” continues through Sunday, July 30, at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.