Zach Greer as William Shakespeare in Something Rotten. Photo credit Theatre in the Park.
Which makes Theatre in the Park’s production of Something Rotten, the first two weeks of June, brilliant comic timing. With musical numbers like “It’s Hard to be the Bard” and characters named Shylock, Portia, Falstaff and Bottom, this over-the-top, crowd-pleasing musical farce sends up all things Shakespeare without apology. Consider it a pre-party for us groundlings.
Plot is not the point here but, in brief: two struggling playwright brothers — Nick and Nigel Bottom — have the supremely rotten luck of being contemporaries of one William Shakespeare. You may have heard of him. As the announcer introduces him in the stadium rock number “Will Power”: The king of couplets. The sultan of sonnets. The man who put the “I am” in “iambic pentameter.”
Like a couple of Salieris to Shakespeare’s Mozart, the Bottom Bros. have little hope of rising against such enormous genius. A word which — to give an idea of the general (phallic) tone — is shortly to be rhymed with “penis.” All size puns intended.
Carson Tate as Nick Bottom sets up the premise on the inspired rant “God I Hate Shakespeare” — during which a supposed friend is moved to protest: “The man really knows how to write a bitchin’ play!” At least Nick’s loving wife Bea believes in him. Jessica Alcorn displays strong muscles and even stronger vocal chops in the proto-feminist anthem “Right Hand Man.”
This being a Shakespearean comedy-parody, there must be two couples in love. And so gangly, dorky, poetic young brother Nigel Bottom (Weston Thomas) cute-meets petite, ethereal-voiced daughter of a Puritan preacher man Portia (Emily Vargo). The two bookworms make cartoony visual comedy and sweet vocal harmony in “I Love the Way,” a seduction scene for those moved more by words (and references to Marlowe and Spenser) than anything else.
As for the greatest writer in the English language and greatest dramatist of all time (and this musical’s greatest character by far), the Rockstar of Avon is hilariously portrayed by the talented Zach Greer (obviously relishing the role) as a smug, swaggering, winkingly sexy Mick Jagger type. Mobbed by the hordes (who in “Will Power” chant back alternate lines of his greatest hit “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), darling of media and society, extremely full of his own self and brilliance, this Shakespeare would be too fabulous for words, if words weren’t very much his thing.
The inevitable showdown between Nick Bottom and William Shakespeare (“Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top”) is a rhyming, tap-dancing literary-dandy duel, during which harsh, harsh barbs are hurled, such as: “Rhyming couplet, that is so 1580s.” Take that!
On the struggling brothers’ way to learning how to be to their own selves true, the story reaches some sort of scrambled peak when the title of Shakespeare’s greatest work is misperceived (by Nostradamus’s nephew Thomas) as Omelet, resulting in a number featuring tap-dancing eggs and entitled… “It’s Eggs!”
Music Director/Conductor Jeff Martin and Choreographer Liz Ernst have their work cut out for them in the gratifyingly many full ensemble song-and-dance numbers, including the pleasingly hummable opener “Welcome to the Renaissance” and mid-show showstopper “A Musical,” a TikTok-like history of the title genre, which references — in music, dance, lyrics and jazz hands — everything from Sound of Music to West Side Story to Chorus Line to Les Miserables to Rent to Wicked, to name but a few.
The sound system crackles and fritzes, kids run to and fro, the stage design (Kelli Harrod) impresses with lighted Tudor windows and an attractive portable proscenium, the numerous costume changes (designed by Patricia Berning) surprise and delight, and, best of all, the talent onstage is deep, including an energetic and excellent ensemble. A stage-full of people (some in egg costumes) singing and tapping and having a great time (while the groundlings around you pass picnic snacks) can’t be beat. Yes, another omelet joke (the show has many).
If a Hamlet-ish character singing (to the Sound of Music tune) “How do you solve a problem like Ophelia?” makes you giggle, get yourself and your supporting cast over to Shawnee Mission Park on the nonce. It is a perfect summer pleasure, on a soft-aired, perfect-weather June evening, with stars twinkling overhead and fireflies twinkling over the orchestra pit, to suspend subtlety and good taste, tickle your Shakespeare references, and enjoy some divinely dumb fun.
Through June 11 at Shawnee Mission Park Amphitheatre. theatreinthepark.org Directed by Mark Swezey