The last thing you want to hear is that there is "something rotten" at a dinner theatre. But rest assured we’re not talking about the cuisine at the famously scrumptious buffet at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md. What I am referring to is the hilarious musical, Something Rotten! that is currently being presented at Toby’s. The laugh-a-minute production is a spoof on Shakespeare, the Renaissance and yes, Broadway.
Unlike Toby’s buffet (the menu is shown at the conclusion of this review), Shakespeare is an acquired taste. Many love his works, others not so much. But how many actually HATE Shakespeare? Well, in this zany musical there is certainly one: Nick Bottom. He is a struggling playwright with an underachieving acting troupe who has nothing but disdain for the ultra-successful Will Shakespeare in late 16th century England. And that’s just the beginning.
With a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatick, Something Rotten! delivers countless “you’re killing me” situations from start to finish. That is, if you find the likes of puritanical oppression and the black plague humorous. Comedic moments are highlighted by well-placed double entendres and a not-too-subtle stream of gaiety, or should I say gayness, running through the production.
The Tony Award winning production irreverently takes on other Broadway musicals like no other, even more so than The Producers, The Book of Mormon, and Shrek to name a few. In fact, there are dozens of references to Broadway musicals in Something Rotten! Among them: Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, Annie, Hair, Cats and Fiddler on the Roof.
In an unusually dance-heavy production, Helen Hayes Award winning director and choreographer Mark Minnick brought his A-game, and the talented cast members (some with Helen Hayes nominations of their own from this past season) does the rest with precision and excellent timing. All sorts of intricate and vigorous dance numbers are on display including tap and high-kicking steps. And three cheers to Mr. Minnick for the show’s staging, pacing and space utilization.
Contributing to the show’s excellence is the brilliantly detailed and lavish period costuming down to the codpieces worn by the men and even omelet costumes (where else would you see those?). These costumes were designed by Gregg Barnes, who crafted the attire for the original Broadway production.
The hue-rich lighting design by Lynn Joslin aided by colorful hanging lanterns brightened up the in-the-round stage. Mark Smedley’s sound design is particularly effective in this production with solid and balanced audio.
Conductor Ross Scott Rawlings (Nathan Scavilla at other performances) leads the 6-piece orchestra who ably back up the vocals and dance numbers.
"All sorts of intricate and vigorous dance numbers are on display..."
In this musical the Kirkpatrick Brothers’ bouncy score is catchy for sure but the lyrics are stunningly clever. Most successful Broadway musicals have a show-stopping number that elicits ovations from audiences. Something Rotten! boasts two such epochal moments.
The elaborate number “A Musical” is performed halfway through the first act. Its high-energy tap dancing and kick line choreography and fabulous lyrics, which include clever references to a bevy of Broadway musicals, such as Les Misérables, and A Chorus Line, drew loud cheers. Also bringing down the house was the second act “Make an Omelette” that contains similar ingredients.
Moreover, a solid musical may present one or two scene-stealers during the course of the show. “Something Rotten!” delivers a multitude, which accounts for the prodigious amount of laughter-producing lines. While the frenzy from the first act settles down in the second act, there is ample fun to enjoy.
The insanely funny story centers on the aforementioned Nick Bottom (played superbly by Jeffrey Shankle) and his younger naïve brother Nigel Bottom (Ben Ribler) who barely can make ends meet. Nick more than Nigel is so jealous of Shakespeare (Justin Calhoun) that he is desperate to write a successful play for a change.
Finding a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (Jordan B. Stocksdale), the nephew of THE Nostradamus, Nick is told that the wave of the future is a musical, whereby the actors break out into song and dance in the middle of their dialogue. What a concept!
Nostradamus, who apparently did not have all his wires connected properly, looked into the future and predicted the next great play would be “Omelette,” instead of Shakespeare’s greatest hit that sounds similar. Mr. Stocksdale is rip-roaring funny in this sequence and is one of the show’s scene stealers.
Shakespeare, meanwhile, displaying surprising insecurity, is worried that the Bottom Brothers are stealing his work. The ensuing madness, dominated by eggs, needless to say, comprises the rest of the plot, which eventually is happily resolved.
Perfectly cast as Nick Bottom, Jeffrey Shankle puts on an amazing performance not only by his comedic timing but also his singing and dancing. Full of energy, Mr. Shankle’s character frantically tries to compete with Shakespeare and has the audience rooting for this underdog. He sets the tone right in “God, I Hate Shakespeare” showcasing his strong tenor vocals.
Justin Calhoun performs with flair and joy as the conceited, gloating, swaggering Shakespeare fresh off his hit play “Romeo and Juliet.” He is the rock star of his time; men and women alike adore him, except, of course, Nick Bottom. He delivers the numbers “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard” with gusto.
As the sensitive romantic Nigel, Ben Ribler, successfully making his Toby’s debut, looks up to Shakespeare though he tries to work with his brother on producing the musical. However, his love interest, a golden hair Puritan named Portia (Marina Yiannouris), convinces Nigel, a poet, that he should write from his heart. Somehow, co-writing “Omelette” doesn’t feel right to him.
Demonstrating a smooth tenor voice, Mr. Ribler clicks in duets with Ms. Yiannouris, the ballad “We See the Light,” and with Mr. Shankle, “To Thine Own Self.”
Another of the show’s scene stealers is Janine Sunday who plays Bea, Nick’s wife. Realizing her husband’s struggles and a desire for a better life, Bea wants to help out any way she can. That includes acting as a part of Nick’s acting troupe though it is illegal for a woman to appear on stage. She even takes on physical jobs for men disguising herself as a man. Ms. Sunday delivers splendidly in “Right Hand Man,” a duet with Mr. Shankle.
As the strict father of Portia, Brother Jeremiah (Adam Grabau) seems to be the father of all Puritans. Bible clinging, intolerant, set in his beliefs, Brother Jeremiah has a habit of slip-of-the-tongue oops moments revealing that perhaps he’s hiding something. If so, he’s not hiding it too well. Mr. Grabau deliciously plays this role to the hilt.
Another deft performance is turned in by Robert Biedermann as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender—the only job a Jew can hold during that era—who cannot legally invest in the musical. Dropping Yiddish words during the dialogue, Mr. Biedermann is such a mensch.
Then there is David James, Toby’s master of the multiple roles, who plays Lord Clapham and the Master of the Justice with his usual relish.
Shane Lowry as the Minstrel who opens up each act with “Welcome to the Renaissance” does a fine job in setting the tone for the show and performs well as a member of The Troupe. The other talented Troupe members include Brandon Bedore, Patrick Gover, Ariel Messeca, and Vince Musgrave.
Rounding out the Ensemble are MaryKate Brouillet, Tina DeSimone, Lydia Gifford, Amanda Kaplan, and Patricia “Pep” Targete. They provide superb support for the leads with their energetic, precise dancing and strong vocals.
Sure, Something Rotten! is a silly farce. But it is a gorgeous spectacle in every respect. The wonderful music, hilarious lyrics, zany story, well-placed satire and an amazingly talented cast and crew make this a must-see show. As the production continues through its run, I wish all the performers well and to break an egg.
Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Something Rotten! Runs through March 19 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Box Office 410-730-8311 or visiting Toby's website as well as Ticketmaster.
Photos: Jeri Tidwell PhotographyThe full Menu is shown here, and the specialty drink is “Bottoms Up.”
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