Part Master Class, part jamboree and about as much fun as you can legally have at an evening of musical theater, this high test extravaganza shares, one gathers, but a smidgen of material jettisoned from what we now enjoy at the St. James Theater. Authors Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick wrote 54 songs for Something Rotten!
What was eventually chosen is arguably not only swell but best serves the piece. Cleverness of songs currently relegated to the brothers’ trunk, is, however, formidable. Though some are “site” specific, others could successfully be performed by cabaret and concert singers. Many of us in the sold-out crowd at Feinstein’s/54Below tonight, as well as those exiting the Broadway production, would be surefire customers for a CD of alternates, replete with Karey’s entertaining, explanatory, anecdotal repartee.
For those of you unfamiliar with the rollicking show (see my review), it concerns brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom “struggling in the shadows of that well known rock star Lin-Manuel Miranda – I mean Shakespeare.” (Karey) Welcome to the Renaissance/With poets, painters, and bon vivants…the original cast company sings. “I remember hearing that song and thinking it doesn’t sound much like Sondheim, but so many have told us they can’t get it out of their heads.” Right on, Karey. Part of the audience mouth the lyrics, many clap in time.
For tonight’s presentation, the gracious and very funny Karey, also on piano, acts as raconteur, while Wayne plays piano and guitar. Both writers, by the way, can sing. Also on piano is Musical Director Mat Eisenstein who manages an entirely new, complex production for this jam-packed, two-off performance.
At the beginning, “we went trolling through Shakespeare and wrote songs but didn’t have a plot.” By 2010, wondering whether the concept was viable, Karey and Wayne approached Kevin McCollum (producer of Rent). When he responded positively, the Kirkpatricks brought in John O’Farrell as third collaborator, “an incredibly funny writer who also knew a lot about Shakespeare, which meant less reading for us!”
“Words You Never Heard,” which calls out some of the many Shakespeare introduced into the English language, was one of those songs initially pitched. Broadway’s current Bard, Christian Borle, who won both Drama Desk and Tony Awards for his inspired performance, takes the stage with character swagger. After all, “he put the I am in iambic pentameter.” When he doesn’t have a word, the Bard makes it up. Some of those originated are: pander, pageantry, obsequious, stealthily, bedazzled…Borle delivers a full-out, cocky turn, punctuated by provocative fanny wag. There’s not a flicker of unfamiliarity with new material.
Next, Karey tells us about the origin of the now blockbuster production number “A Musical.” The unheard-of genre is foretold to Nick Bottom by Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) so that the underdog can compete with Shakespeare. We hear an initial rendition, then the more up-tempo version requested by Director Casey Nicholaw.
Nostradamus (Spoken):It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops/And the plot is conveyed through song. Nick (Spoken): Through song? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Wait, so an actor is saying his lines and out of nowhere he just starts singing? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Well that is the (Singing) Stupidest thing that I have ever heard/You’re doing a play, got something to say/So you sing it?… The dizzying number is a mash-up of familiar musical tunes with lyrics tailored to the moment. At the St. James, it has all the glitz and glamour one could wish for. Our grinning audience bounces in their seats.
John Cariani (Nigel Bottom) offers the deep-sixed “Nigel’s Lament,” dear to the authors’ hearts because it’s about a writer who thinks he’s no good: It all comes down to this, I suck, I suck/I hold my quill, but it still runs amuck…The company provides a choral arrangement including sucky, sucky, suck, man, you suck (in grave-faced harmony). Cariani’s (Nigel’s) eyebrows are knit to a point in utter humiliation.
A rejected celebration of romantic poetry that features Nigel (Cariani) and love interest, Portia (Kate Reinders), arrives as a 1970s Elton-Johnish number: love, love, love, love, magical, mythical love…the pair sing with tangy period flavor and infectious pseudo-gravitas. The two voices are terrific together, expressions priceless.
David Hibbard (Standby for Brian D’Arcy James’s Nick Bottom and three other roles) performs “On the Top” (which became “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top”)…’om not gonna stop/until the Bottoms are on the top…An excellent vocalist, he also, as Nick, palpably vibrates with frustrated ambition.
Company member Marisha Wallace, with Cariani and Hibbard, sings a discarded “Right Hand Man,” as Nick’s wife Bea. Originally written as if ditsy support filled with obtuse insults, the number evolved into a demand for recognition of equal strength/ability. Wallace has a clarion voice we’re sure to hear in future outings and conveys the feckless woman exactly as the Kirkpatricks first envisioned her. The men are deadpan funny.
Heidi Blickenstaff (Bea) joins Cariani, Reinders and Hibbard for the very pretty “Lovely Love” in which we see all four actors occupy their roles. Blickenstaff closes her eyes and sighs into it, Cariani looks like a hopeful puppy, Reinders clasps hands at her breast overcome with pleasure, Hibbard expands with the possibility.
Karey and Wayne play the argumentative Nick and Nigel in an abandoned “The Trouble With You” whose consummate wordsmithing, like volleys of verse across a net, is an admired hoot. Nor, on the Broadway stage, did we see Nick and Nigel in the stocks among other prisoners, tap dancing (from the waist down) to “Desperate Times,” a metaphoric and currently politically apt complaint by those undeserved of such punishment.
We close with “Omlette” (the musical) and visions of dancing eggs. The Kirkpatricks wrote ten iterations of this! Sections from several range from rock n’ roll to the Andrews Sisters for inspiration. Alas, poor yolk, I know thee well…You make wine from sour grapes/ You got a flat pancake, hey, call it a crepe/When life gives you eggs, make an omelette…Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Omelette…Who needs sugarplums?!
A chorus of company members throw themselves into this evening with gleeful abandon (as well as professionalism), enjoying it almost as much as the audience, dropping not a single new stitch. These include: Matt Allen, Elizabeth Early, Linda Griffin, Courtney Ivantosch, Aaron Kaburick, Tari Kelly, Beth Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Angie Schworer
The subversively instructive shenanigans were joyous and brimming with talent.
April 25, 2016
254 West 54th Street