By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Oct 18, 2018 at 6:26 PM

It turns out it’s really hard to be the Bard. At least that’s what the rock 'n' roll superstar playwright from the Renaissance wants us to believe in the touring production of "Something Rotten," which opened at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 16 and runs through Sunday.

In this indulgently wacky, pointedly irreverent and produced-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life musical extravaganza, Shakespeare’s star is shining so brightly that other dramatists – like our heroes Nick and Nigel Bottom – simply can’t compete. What’s a struggling pair of thespians to do?

With creditors calling, a wife expecting and producers fleeing, Nick (an earnest and earthy Matthew Michael Janisse) risks his meager savings on the advice of a soothsayer (the hilarious and captivating Greg Kalafatas). Meanwhile Nigel (the dreamy Richard Spitaletta) is struggling to follow his heart, both in his writing and in his newfound love with the Puritan, Portia (a bouncy Jennifer Elizabeth Smith, who looks and sounds just like a young Kristen Chenoweth). And after much ado – and singing and dancing and even more singing and dancing – all’s finally well that ends well.

To come up with something as crazy and affectionately derivative as "Something Rotten," I think the creators (Karey Kirkpatrick, Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell) followed this recipe:

Two parts Shakespeare

The world’s favorite playwright from Stratford-on-Avon is having a moment right now, but never one more glamorous and sexy as his role here. Infused with the swagger and libido of Mick Jagger and the nagging insecurity of ... every writer ever, Brit Matthew Baker absolutely nails the part in his tight, metallic leather togs, bemused smile and white shirt open to his navel.

And if you’ve "brushed up your Shakespeare" recently, you’ll spot lots of references, character names, titles and tropes from the Bard’s most famous plays. They are scattered liberally throughout the show, but usually come out a bit "scrambled." (For instance, Portia was Shylock’s daughter – a Jew, not a Puritan – and she wasn’t sent to a nunnery. That was Hamlet’s girlfriend Ophelia, but I digress.)

Basically if you haven’t read "Romeo and Juliet" or "Hamlet" since ninth grade, it won’t matter much. The show is not short on gags high and low, from Shakespeare’s canon, to history and literature, to up-to-the-minute pop culture.

Two parts in-joke for Broadway fans

Audiences for Broadway musicals love being rewarded for their devotion to the genre, and writers have been giving them lots of self-referential material in recent shows. "Hamilton" has a few Easter eggs in both the music and lyrics that pay tribute to Lin Manuel Miranda’s favorite musicals, but they are subtle. "Book of Mormon" makes many more references to canonical shows such as "The Sound of Music," "The King and I" and, of course, "The Lion King."

But "Something Rotten" out-metas everyone with the song "A Musical," in which the nephew of Nostradamus explains that the future of theater is filled with kick lines, choruses and 11 o’clock numbers. A whopping 20 snippets of other musicals are crammed into this one, completely over-the-top production number. Everyone from the puppets of "Avenue Q" to the felines in "Cats" to the orphans in "Annie" get a plug. And if you really focus, you can also see shades of "The Music Man," "Evita," "Chicago," "South Pacific," "Sweeney Todd," "Hello Dolly," "Guys and Dolls" and, for the finale, "A Chorus Line." Later in the show, the "Les Miserables," "Phantom," "Sound of Music," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Mary Poppins" jokes are the full hot fudge sundae on top of this glorious excess of showtunes. If it sounds like too much of a good thing, well ...

One part Renaissance Faire

A miniature Globe Theatre opens and closes to reveal the Bottom brothers’ rehearsal hall, and everything from the frame around the proscenium to the illustrated drops feature an idealized Tudor village. The period-inspired costumes in "Something Rotten" are sumptuous – and numerous. Designed by Gregg Barnes, the gowns, doublets, farthingales and feathered hats are an explosion of color – completely embroidered, bedazzled and fitted for quick changes. There are other fun Ren Faire references to criminals in the stocks, performing for Queen Elizabeth and the lack of indoor plumbing. It’s almost surprising they weren’t selling enormous turkey legs in the lobby.

One part Vegas revue

"Something Rotten" is all about excess, and the touring company really delivers on the glitz and glamour of the Rockettes mixed with good old-fashioned dance numbers that stop the show. Incredible tap-dancing (also used heavily in "Book of Mormon") is required of the whole cast, and the costumes for the Bottom Brothers’ two "musicals within the musical" span from the ridiculous to the culinary to the sublime. The showgirls’ turkey feather fans to complement their sparkly pilgrim tights are a stroke of genius in the final scene.

One part penis jokes

The show isn’t raunchy exactly. There’s no nudity in it, but there is a pervasive high school locker room-esque quality to the humor featuring lots of oversized codpieces – including one that’s used as a pocket –characters climaxing loudly over poetry and an obviously randy, repressed Puritan whose every line includes sexual innuendo. There are even penis jokes (with hand gestures) in a song about Bubonic Plague. 

One part buddy comedy

Nick, his plucky wife Bea (a delightfully brassy Emily Kristen Morris), Nigel and Portia all have their ups and downs, their disagreements and disappointments. But like any Shakespeare comedy (or episode of "Glee") all is forgiven at the end of the play and the group realizes their love and devotion to one another can overcome any comedy of errors.

A smidgen of cynicism 

As Nick asks his company of actors: "Do you want to do something important and artistic, or do you want to be in a massive hit that makes tons of money?" It’s easy to see which side the creators of "Something Rotten" came down on.