A fictitious history of the musical … and a classic that mastered the form
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
The Dallas Theater Center and Robin Hood aren’t the only locals traipsing through the Middle Ages with musical abandon. Over at the Winspear, the national tour of Something Rotten! frolics across the Renaissance — or more accurately, the Renonsense — in this comic fantasy about the origins of musical theater.
It’s 1595 London, and the Bottom Brothers, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti) can’t catch a break with their company of actors. All the oxygen in the room is being sucked up by that pretentious upstart Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), and they need a surefire hit. Nick stoops to asking a soothsayer, Nostradamus (Blake Hammond), to peek into the future and tell him what will be the Next Big Thing. When the answer comes back, “Musicals!,” Nick is confused. But a few visions later — including numerous crossed-wires that result in a medley of musical phrases and iconic images from West Side Story to Annie to Rent to who-knows-what-else, we get a mini-history from Styne to Sondheim, with tons of prescient references to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and other characters the Bard of Avon has yet to conceive, weaving zingers from old tropes with modern twists.
Something Rotten! is one of the most joyously silly shows ever devised — like The Drowsy Chaperone and The Producers, it’s a musical about musicals that reminds us how dumb musicals are … and how we nevertheless love them. Watching it is like a two-and-a-half-hour nerdgasm for theater queens. There are so many inside jokes, just being in the audience should qualify as surgical experience.
I’ve rarely seen a more energetic cast that glories in camping it up with fey gusto, reveling in the plentiful double entendres in songs like “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” “A Musical” and “Welcome to the Renaissance.” (There’s even a closeted Puritan secretly lusting for the very chorusboys he condemns.) Hammond and Pascal get the most scene-stealing moments, but McClure is a fireplug of charisma, and Grisetti’s sad-sack poet has many slyly funny-touching bits. By the time of the big play-within-a-play showstopper, “Omelette” — this show’s “Springtime for Hitler” — Something Rotten! has either won you over or worn you out. Whichever, you’ll leave doubled-over and exhausted by laughing so much.
Something Rotten! makes fun of musicals, while A Little Night Music, now being revived at Theatre 3, comes from the mind of one of the great practitioners of the form, Stephen Sondheim. He and book writer Hugh Wheeler have taken filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s sexual roundelet Smiles on a Summer Night, about the romantic entanglements of turn-of-the-century Swedish aristocrats, and turned it into a clever chamber musical, filled with wit and farce but made oh-so-elevated by its elegant wisdom. (Sondheim composed several musical rondos, which lyrically prefigure like the sexual revolving doors that define Act 2.)
If you’re not familiar with the plot, successful middle-aged lawyer Fredrik (John Kuether) has recently married the teenaged Anne (Ellie Hertel), who would be better suited to Fredrik’s son Henrik (Russell McCook) … if only Henrik weren’t a repressed seminarian. Into their town comes the famed actress Desiree Armfeldt (Jennifer Kuenzer), who years earlier carried on a torrid romance with Fredrik but has now settled into mistresshood with the brusque, dumb and jealous dragoon Carl-Magnus (Regis Allison)… much to the displeasure of his wife Charlotte (Ashlie Kirkpatrick).
Who will end up coupled? Can you go back again? There are many themes and ideas beyond the apparent floating on the air of Sondheim’s score.
Speaking of which, music director Scott Eckert has gingerly pruned Jonathan Tunick’s famously lush orchestrations for the string-centric combo he has assembled and directs them expertly. Indeed, the only downside to listening to this rich music is that the musicians sometimes overwhelm the un-miked actresses, who, in theater-in-the-round, leave portions of the audience straining to hear Sondheim’s witty lyrics.
The tendency of director Marianne Galloway to plant the actors in stationary positions during songs is one of her only missteps; the show is full of smart ideas, including the modern-dress chorus, who mingle with the audience and pop up like stage-door Johnnys to comment upon the action and interact with the principals.
Often, A Little Night Music is presented as a gauzy reverie of a time past, but Galloway’s interpretation reminds us how relevant it still is, how current. She’s ably aided by standout performances from Kuenzer, Kuether and Kirkpatrick, who make this under-performed classic a lovely charmer.
Something Rotten! at the Winspear Opera House, through June 25. ATTPAC.org.
A Little Night Music at Theatre 3, through July 2.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 16, 2017.