We are all stupid and silly — and we all love smart-ass musicals that tell us so. That’s the deep message of Something Rotten!, Theatre Charlotte’s brash, big-ass extravaganza that has raised the curtain on the grand reopening of the iconic Queens Road barn.
Yeah, it’s been awhile since a musical opened at our venerable community theatre company’s home. That was early September 2019, when Oliver! launched what would have been the 2019-20 season. But COVID-19 shut everything down in early March, before auditions or rehearsals could even begin for Dreamgirls, scheduled to open in late spring. Then a late-night fire in the waning hours of 2020 gouged a huge hole in the theater floor, smoked the ceilings, and fried all the precious electronics — lights, audio, AC, computers — and kicked the company out of their house.
For over two years, while more than $1 million in repairs, renovations, and new equipment requisitions could be authorized and completed, artistic planning continued while navigating insurance adjustments and jumping municipal hurdles. While the new 501 Queens Road gestated and marinated for more than two years, the company hit the road, resuming production in September 2021 and hopscotching the city to keep Theatre Charlotte alive in Charlotte. The Palmer Building, Halton Theater at Central Piedmont Community College, and the Great Aunt Stella Center were the first three stops on the season-long 2021-22 road trip.
To be clear, there have been five or six shows at the old barn, in play or concert format, since Oliver! closed back in 2019, including two iterations of A Christmas Carol, a Theatre Charlotte gotta-do-it tradition. But nothing short of a musical, one with an authentic exclamation point yelling out its title, can truly show off a theater’s brand-new bells and whistles — or put them to their ultimate test.
Of course, there had to be some extra drama, an extended drumroll, before Something Rotten! could give the renovated Queens Road barn its much-anticipated relaunch. Scheduled for its closeup last October, the revamped site wasn’t going to be ready for opening night. The 2022-23 season had to be reshuffled, and the wondrous Shakespearean mashup of a musical was postponed.
A construction project in Charlotte? One can barely believe it wasn’t finished on time.
Billy Ensley, after directing the first little musical away from TC’s home, The Fantasticks, now pilots the first leviathan since the company’s return. Three of his mates from that Palmer Building gem back in 2021 are on board with Ensley for this new voyage, all of them playing major roles and all of them delivering.
Something Rotten this way comes
I was fairly bowled over by the brash irreverence of Something Rotten! when I first encountered the Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick concoction on Broadway in 2016. You might wonder if the Kirkpatricks had the zany antics of The Compleate Wks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) on their minds when they decided to take aim at the Bard of Avon and musicals.
Certainly the methods of their madness can be traced to the Reduced Shakespeare Company — with genetic material from Forbidden Broadway and The Producers also in the DNA. The Kirkpatricks discard the merely dubious ideas that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else, or that his awesome greatness was only fully appreciated after he died. They ignore the reality that there’s only faint, sketchy traces of the man over the course of the grand Elizabethan Era.
No, all those tropes are toast. The Kirkpatricks, with John O’Farrell collaborating on the book, went full-bore misinformation and alternate reality months before The Donald descended the Trump Tower escalator.
Shakespeare is no longer a dim peripheral figure on the Elizabethan cultural scene. He’s a full-blown superstar, recognized and wildly adored wherever he goes. Mobbed by his rabid fans, he gives outdoor spoken-word concerts to sustain the mass hysteria.
The secret of the Bard’s genius is revealed. Like the Reduced Shakespeares, Forbidden Broadway, and the Kirkpatricks after him — not to mention The Donald — the real Shakespeare was a thieving magpie. Not only did he steal from ancients like Plutarch and Ovid, predecessors like Chaucer and Boccaccio, and contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe, he cribbed from unknown wannabes and any given man or woman on the street.
Case in point: After defecting from Nick Bottom’s struggling theatre company, Will takes his former boss’ name with him and dumps it into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Another case in point: Sniffing out the possibility that Nick is working on something revolutionary for the stage, Shakespeare embeds himself in his former company, where he swipes the complete manuscript of Hamlet from its true author, Nigel Bottom. Because big brother Nick has astutely told him that “to be or not to be” is trash, it’s not to be.
A hapless mediocrity, Nick is our hero. In his crazed search for the next new thing in theatre, Nick seeks out a soothsayer to look into the future, a rather Shakespearean ploy. The eccentric soothsayer that Nick picks, Nostradamus, turns out to be a genuine visionary, but his inner crystal ball seems to be afflicted with astigmatism. Skipping over the breakthrough artform of opera on the near horizon, soon to be birthed in Italy, Nostradamus is himself amazed to see … a musical!?
So powerful is this concept that Nostradamus cannot even say the word without a vatic, conjuring sweep of his right arm. He wants Nick — and us — to see it clearly, too. Nick, poor thing, doesn’t have as juicy a role as the raving Nostradamus, who must convince his skeptical client that such an impossibility can be created, believed, and become universally popular.
He’ll be able to bring my play to a complete stop and have my speaking characters suddenly start singing? And he’ll be able to interrupt this blatant interruption with a whole crowd of people dancing? Tap dancing? Yes, yes, and yes, Nostradamus prophesies, and audiences will lap it up.
We do see, for we were living proof of this seeming insanity at the Queens Road barn, just like I was at the St. James Theatre in 2015.
Over and over, the Kirkpatricks reinforce the idea that the road from brilliant concept to acclaimed masterwork is strewn with pitfalls. Nick begins with a colossal misstep, an upbeat number called “The Black Death,” which strives to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” in utter tastelessness.
So Nick hurries back to his soothsayer. What will Shakespeare’s greatest triumph be, he asks, determined to beat the Bard to the punch. Pushing away invisible cobwebs between him and the future, Nostradamus proclaims, Omelet, the Musical is the future, confident he’s setting Nick on the right track.
With creditors and prudish censors dogging his way, Nick has ample complications to overcome. The backbreaker is Nigel’s resistance. Instead of sticking to the yolks and the big egg picture, Nigel is spouting useless lines like, “To thine own self be true.”
Another Shakespearean device comes into play with little brother, the double plotline. While tasked with writing the world’s first libretto, Nigel is smitten by Portia, the lovely daughter of Brother Jeremiah, the most sanctimonious and censorious Puritan in London. Avid admirers of Shakespeare, both Portia and Nigel can see the parallel between their star-crossed plight and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, their idol’s newest hit.
Ensley’s eager, able, well-drilled cast of 25 can seem like a teeming city in the confines of a barn, heartily welcoming us to two Renaissances, really, with Nehemiah Lawson as the Minstrel leading the ensemble’s bustling greeting — to the refurbished theater and olden days — when the curtain rises. They can form a credible mob around Will when he struts upon his stage.
Along with such teeming scenes, Ensley and choreographer Lisa Blanton and headshot sketch artist Dennis Delamar can pour in numerous references to familiar, beloved musicals we all know. Explicit references to Phantom, Les Miz, Cats, Sound of Music, and Chess are in the Kirkpatrick-O’Farrell script, but what about the sly nods to Annie, A Chorus Line, The Producers, and West Side Story?
There are more Broadway allusions than I’ve mentioned and still more that I may have missed. Ensley keeps the pace brisk.
Twice cast as Jesus at Theatre Charlotte in past seasons; along with leads in Rent, Memphis, and Arsenic and Old Lace; Joe McCourt steers us through Nick’s sea of troubles. Folks out in Matthews would remember McCourt’s exploits in Bonnie and Clyde more vividly, his first team-up with Ensley.
The Arsenic and Old Lace agitation as Motimer, when McCourt strayed from musicals into comedy, served as a nice precedent for his work here. When he leans away from straight-man chores opposite Will and Nostradamus and into Nick’s showpieces, McCourt flashes his confident charisma — with comical seasoning — when he fumes “God, I Hate Shakespeare.”
McCourt is no less in command when he brings down the curtain for intermission with “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” though his best soufflé may rise when he greets his troupe for the first Omelet rehearsal, absurdly exclaiming “It’s Eggs!” Yet this wannabe turn is decisively upstaged by the conceited rock star and the wild-eyed prophet.
Perfectly cast at the Palmer in The Fantasticks, Mitchell Dudas and Kevin Roberge are even more smashing now. Dudas was a wonderfully swashbuckling El Gallo, the beguiling Fantasticks narrator, but he’s far slicker and more self-absorbed here, shining in his wicked showpieces, “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard.” And the sheer arrogance of Dudas when he flashes his Shakespearean smile! You expect little LEDs to twinkle at the edges of his teeth.
Since “The Black Death” is an ensemble slaying, it’s Roberge who gets the killer solo of the night, “A Musical,” indoctrinating McCourt so thoroughly that the conjuring sweeps of Nick’s arm become nearly as prophetic.
After his portrait of the more blustery Fantasticks dad, Roberge turns up his leonine energy more than a few notches. And the hair! Far more eccentric than the Einstein in Verizon ads. Think Charlton Heston on top of Sinai in The Ten Commandments.
Matt Howie, the naïf swain from Ensley’s Fantasticks, and Cornelia Barnwell mesh beautifully as the confidence-challenged Nigel and the overprotected Portia. But they’re overshadowed by a slew of quirkier characters who don’t sing nearly as much. Who comes first? Maybe Lindsey Schroeder as Bea, Nick’s proto-feminist wife, who fills out the contours of Shakespeare’s Portia in a memorable courtroom scene.
Certainly Hank West vies for the honor of favorite minor character as the shifty and resourceful Shylock, who remains a moneylender in Shakespeare’s world but transforms into the first theatre producer in Nick’s troupe and the New World. Delamar, our sketch artist and longtime Theatre Charlotte idol, gets props here for portraying a pair of pomposities: Lord Clapham, Nick’s skittish financial backer, and the Judge who must sentence Nick for his trumped-up crimes.
If there’s space for a feminist, a theatre producer, and a rock star in this Renaissance makeover, there’s also room for a gay preacher and an outré trans person. J. Michael Beech’s homosexuality as Brother Jeremiah is hardly latent at all as he strives to keep himself closeted with indifferent success, and we can presume that Paul Reeves Leopard as Robin gets the pick of the women’s roles in the Bottoms’ troupe, perennially dressed and simpering for the part.
Brave New World!
Back at the Barn
If the Something Rotten! players I’ve named thus far decided to form a professional theatre company, I’d only be mildly surprised by their audacity. The new Old Barn made them all look good, first with the opulence of Chelsea Retalic’s period costumes — and the stark anachronism of Shakespeare’s glitter. Chris Timmons’ set designs didn’t look like he was working on a shoestring budget, either, indoors or out.
Better yet, the renovated 501 Queens Road facility has remained true to itself, in its lobby and its theater space. In the former, there are new, more modern-looking ceiling fans, which sit admirably flush to the upgraded ceiling. There were still extensive lines to the restrooms, so my inspections of the toilet — and the new backstage — must await visits to come.
In the theatre hall, the skeleton of the new scaffolding isn’t fleshed out at all with sheetrock, so the roofbeams are visible all the way to the bricks that meet it at the proscenium wall. More like a beloved old barn than ever! Artistic director Timmons, wearing his second hat as acting executive director, told me that the renovations made it possible to raise the stage proscenium. Yet there was a shower of confetti to climax the finale, where the “Welcome to the Renaissance” melody completes its last rebirth as “Welcome to America.”
I can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I had seen evidence of a functional fly loft at the Queens Road barn.
Best of all, there was a profusion of theatre lights shining in many colors, along with strategically spaced audio speakers. All are discreetly black, of course, so I couldn’t resist taking flash photos to confirm that all this equipment is spanking new. Everything worked flawlessly, including Theatre Charlotte’s soundboard. Nor did I notice any coughing or humming from the heating system. All was bliss, best feet forward, with nothing rotten except the show’s title.
Don’t be shocked to find that Something Rotten! is sold out for the rest of its current run. The show, the production, and the newborn theater are all that good. Timmons & Co. may need to add performances to meet the well-deserved demand.
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