TAMPA — The premise of Something Rotten, an irreverent reinvention of stage history that opened Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, sells itself: What if William Shakespeare wasn't really all that?
What if musicals developed out of a desperate response by his Elizabethan competitors — even if they found the idea ludicrous that anyone would pay to see actors singing, dancing and acting at the same time? Wouldn't it be great to come up with a musical for the little guy, one that brings the Bard down a peg or two?
Musicals such as The Producers, The Book of Mormon and Spamalot have established that iconoclasm works. Why not have some fun with Shakespeare, the ultimate sacred cow, while also poking fun at formulaic musicals and ourselves, just to show we're good sports?
Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell wrote the book, and brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick wrote the music and lyrics for Something Rotten. As the story goes, the idea percolated among them since college. It has that collaborative, caffeinated feel of late nights and laughter, arguments waged and compromised reached. They created a pair of 1595 playwrights, Nick and Nigel Bottom, in debt thanks to Shakespeare, whom they cast as a spoiled rock star surrounded by sycophants. Someone along the way outfitted him in glittering silver and gold, and put all the men in the cast in oversized codpieces.
Their vision made it to Broadway in 2015, and the three principals in the touring show, Rob McClure and Josh Grisetti as Nick and Nigel, and Adam Pascal as Shakespeare, come from the Broadway cast. Nick, the businessman leader of a struggling theater troupe, is a flawed but sympathetic everyman who vents his jealousies early in God, I Hate Shakespeare: "That little turd/He has no sense about the audience/He makes them feel so dumb/The b------ doesn't care/That my poor a-- is getting numb."
His younger brother Josh is the poet, from whom Shakespeare ends up stealing material. After a visit from a debt collector (a nod to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, one of countless references to Shakespeare plays and Broadway musicals), Nick pays a visit to a soothsayer, looking for Shakespeare's next hit, which he hopes to put on himself. "Thomas Nostradamus" reaches into the future, but the signals come back garbled. He foresees all the singing and dancing to come, but mixes that up with the coming Shakespeare masterpiece, which he interprets as "Omelette."
Nick goes to work on a musical involving a Danish pastry. Puns like this litter the script, as do double entendres and other lowbrow humor. A scene in which Nigel rushes through a love sonnet to his girlfriend Portia, for example, turns into a parallel of premature ejaculation. The prophesy becomes fodder for references to dozens of musicals, from Hello, Dolly to The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, Mary Poppins, the titles plugged in as their own punchlines.
Performers acquit themselves well, not just McClure as the rough-hewn overmatched playwright or Pascal's swaggering Tim Curry of a Shakespeare. Autumn Hurlbert's Portia and Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah, her closeted Puritanical father, are as funny as the script allows. But there is such a thing as lack of pretense, of a childlike lack of self-consciousness, and then there is just juvenile, and too much of this falls into the latter category.
The Bottom brothers work their way out of some legal trouble and are banished to a budding America. They'll play just fine because we're all down to earth, we're not stuck on ourselves, and we can laugh at dumb jokes and just have a good time.
That's the bet, anyway.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.