Whether you love or hate actually watching a play by William Shakespeare, there’s always something intriguing in watching work that’s about him—perhaps because so little is really known of his life, it’s fun to let our imaginations run wild. Something Rotten!, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, isn’t really about Shakespeare so much as it is about two writing brothers, his contemporaries, who are trying desperately to beat the Bard. But it’s close enough.
Shakespeare is a character in this musical comedy, with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell and music and lyrics by Kirkpatrick and his own brother, Wayne. And he’s entertainingly portrayed by Charlie Tingen as a preening rock star clad in black leather pants and given to tossing his long blond mane as he struts around the stage. But at the heart of the plot are big brother Nick Bottom (Cordell Cole) and his younger, in-the-shadows brother Nigel (Cornelius Davis).
They’re under pressure to have a hit in their 1590s England theater world, and the wolf is at the door for Nick and his wife Bea (in a strong performance by Jillian Louis). That’s why Nick turns to soothsayer Nostradamus (no, not that Nostradamus) to find out what the next big Elizabethan-era play is going to be, so they can write it. But the prophet (played by Kraig Swartz with a lot of gusto and a suitably ridiculous wig) tends to get garbled messages from the future, so (spoiler alert!) he comes up with the title for this masterpiece: Omelette (er, that should be Hamlet). Which leads to the Bottom brothers concocting a brand-new thing: a musical! And one about breakfast, to boot.
Of course, Shakespeare himself frequently used music in his plays, but the Bottoms are on to something different: a true musical where the songs tell part of the story. And it’s clear the creators of Something Rotten! have a deep affection for the art form, tossing multiple references to Broadway musical hits around on numbers like, well, “A Musical.” If you’re a true Broadway baby, you can have lots of fun trying to identify all the “Easter eggs” in the lyrics.
Meanwhile, away from the stage, the sensitive Nigel falls for fellow poetry maven Portia (Elana Ramos Pascullo), but the course of true love never did run smooth, etc.—she’s the daughter of a rabid Puritan (James Patterson), who somehow accidentally always ends up turning his religious rants into sexual innuendos. Nigel also needs to figure out how to find his own path as a writer, so “To Thine Own Self" be true and all that.
Something Rotten! is clever, and well staged here for the most part by director/choreographer Ellie Mooney. Occasionally the Gompertz stage feels a little crowded on ensemble dance numbers; conversely, one might wish for a larger ensemble cast to deliver those numbers.
But you can’t have everything, and Something Rotten! is definitely a fun night out, whether you’re into Shakespeare or not. The production continues through Jan. 1; for tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.