It’s 1595 in South London. The rebirth of Europe, known as, well, The Renaissance (which means rebirth), is underway.
William Shakespeare (David Burnham) is a superstar. A condescending, posing, foppish twit. But also a prolific, word-inventing genius. And an inveterate thief of other people’s ideas.
Nick Bottom (Cameron Bond-Sczempka), a marginal playwright, and his brother, Nigel (Bryan Banville), a promising poet, are trying to compete, but failing dismally. Their patron leaves them. The moneylender, Shylock (Dallas McLaughlin), wants to take part in their productions, but by English law, Jews can only lend money, not invest it.
Nick’s wife, Bea (Chelle Denton) goes out to work, dressed as a man (she can’t do what she wants, either). Nigel’s swooning girlfriend, Portia (Liliana Rodriguez), the daughter of a stern Puritan magistrate, Brother Jeremiah (Johnny Fletcher), is sent off to a nunnery.
So far, so much taken, in many ways, from various characters and plotlines in Shakespeare’s plays. You get an idea of how far afield this goes, touching on sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-Shakespeare-ism and religious zealotry.
In desperation, out of money and ideas, Nick consults the soothsayer, Nostradamus (Randall Hickman) — a distant relative of the legendary oracle. Nick begs him to say the sooth, to wit, tell him what’s going to be the Next Big Thing in theater (“Rhyming couplets; that is so 1580s”), and also tell him what the future will consider to be Shakespeare’s greatest play.
What the seer’s not-always-reliable visions reveal are Musical, Omelette and Ham. One out of three‘s not bad. Armed with that dubious info, the Bottoms set out to be On Top.
The goofball mashup musical, with a score by brothers Karey Kirkpatrick and Wayne Kirkpatrick and book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick, opened on Broadway in 2015. It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, but only scored one, for Christian Borle as Shakespeare.
In 2017, the national tour came close to San Diego — Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa — with Adam Pascal (original cast of “Rent”) as The Bard, and Rob McClure (Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight” at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2010; Tony nominee for “Mrs. Doubtfire”) as Nick Bottom. It was a knockout… at least the first act.
That makes this Moonlight Stage production the regional premiere of the show. As usual, they’ve pulled out all the stops.
Again, the over-long first act is the highlight of the piece, in plot and music, with killer numbers like the opening, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” Nick’s “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” a creepy, COVID-relevant “The Black Death,” Shakespeare’s self-promoting “Will Power” and the show-stopper, “A Musical,” sung by Nostradamus.
In that song, more than a dozen Broadway musical hits are parodied and imitated, from “Les Miz” to “A Chorus Line,” “South Pacific” to “Annie,” “Evita” to “Rent” to “Seussical” to “Chicago” to “The Music Man.” It’s a stunning feat of caricature, in writing, singing, dancing and choreography. And Hickman, at the helm, seems to be relishing every second of it. That number alone is worth the price of admission.
Hickman is the brightest light in the production. Though Nick Bottom should take center stage, Banville’s Nigel is the more compelling sibling here. Their womenfolk are both fun and vocally talented. Burnham’s Bard, in his painted-on pants (smaller codpiece than in other productions!), seems to be making all the Borle moves, but he makes them well.
In the second act, the humor flags, as do the musical numbers, except for Shakespeare’s spoiled-brat lament, “Hard to be the Bard.”
The whole omelet gambit, the dancing eggs, the how-to-make-an-omelet bit, fall souffle-flat.
But, under the direction of Jamie Torcellini, who has appeared on the Moonlight stage hilariously in the past (as Max in “The Producers,” Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” Patsy in “Spamalot,” Igor in “Young Frankenstein”), and directed two productions in 2019 (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Matilda”), the 25-member cast gives it their all. Choreographer Bill Burns also does a great job, as does music director/conductor Michael Paternostro, with his 11-piece orchestra.
The set (Paul Black), Lighting (Jennifer Edwards) and sound (Brandon Boomizad) are effective. The costumes (Robin McGee) are terrific.
So, what does the title refer to? “Hamlet,” like so much else in this show? (with its famous line, “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark”). Or the rotten eggs? Or the rotten Egg idea? It’s your call.
Just remember: Act One is smart; Act Two is silly. Whatever tickles your funny bone.
- “Something Rotten!” runs through Aug. 6 at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive in Vista
- Performances are at 8 p.m .Wednesday-Sunday
- Tickets ($17-$56) are available at 760-724-2110 or online at moonlightstage.com
- Running time: 2 hrs. 30 min.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.