It may be called "Something Rotten!," but the Fisher Theatre's season-opening musical is nothing but fresh -- and enormously fun.
Fascistic, satiristic, clever and completely original, "Something Rotten!" is a theater piece that loves its theater and gives us plenty of reason to love it for that reason. Set in late 16th century England, the production -- about two brothers in a battle for theatrical dominance with William Shakespeare, the rock star of the Victorian stage scene -- is crammed with spitfire references to both the Bard's work and to the world of modern musicals, delivered with the cheek of Monty Python's Flying Circus and the irreverence of "Book of Mormon," and no small amount of self-knowing sexual entendre.
Suffice to say that if you got a dollar for every nod to another stage musical (name one and it's most likely there), you'd be able to buy a week's worth of "Hamilton" tickets -- and still might choose to spend it on another romp with "Rotten!"
The show, by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, starts at full throttle, with a cheerful bard (Devin Holloway) leading the cast through a celebration of the end of the Dark Ages ("Welcome to the Renaissance"), and seldom takes its foot off the pedal. As the Bottom brothers try to find a way to best the rival Bard, we're treated to musical pieces that are productions unto themselves -- none better than "Make An Omlette," the Bottoms' bid at theatrical immortality that's so loaded with twists you're wishing you had a remote control to press Rewind.
"Will Power" -- led by a gleaming, gleefully egoistic Matthew Baker -- is Shakespeare in the Park done as rock concert, with sonnets as hit singles and a troupe of dancers making the crowd go gaga. Baker also shines in "Hard to Be the Bard," a lament about the scheming and not entirely ethical playwright's pressures of maintaining iconic status, while "We See the Light" gives the Puritans a moment of fantastical, gospel-style enlightenment.
"Something Rotten!" is not just wit on parade, though. Its cast invests it with heart and dimension; Matthew Michael Janisse, for instance, plays Nick Bottom as a good man driven to despair in his own drive for theatrical success, while Richard Spetaletta gives younger Bottom brother Nigel a genuine arc that involved falling in love (with the preacher's daughter, no less) and coming into his own as an artist. Mark Saunders, as Puritan chief Brother Jeremiah, Peter Surace as the Yiddish-spewing Shylock) and Greg Kalafatas as a daffy Nostradamus (the nephew, not the real deal) are all appropriately broad in their support roles.
You can find a few statements in "Rotten!," both implied and direct, about Victorian society and theater politics, but why bother? This is one to sit back and enjoy for its abundant laughs and marvel at the way it spins a wealth of source material into something right, not, er, rotten.
"Something Rotten!" runs through Oct. 7 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $35-$90. Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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