By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
With its current production of Something Rotten!, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré has set the bar so incredibly high that even they may never be able to duplicate what they have now achieved. With the blessing of artistic director Maxwell Williams, Michael McKelvey is at the helm of this recent Broadway hit as both director and musical director and he clearly is having the time of his life.
In this send-up of Broadway musicals set in the Elizabethan era, McKelvey was able to cast Matthew Michael Janisse and Richard Spitaletta, as the leads Nick and Nigel Bottom. This was the same duo starring for a year on the road in the national tour of Something Rotten! So, in a sense, this opportunity is an extension of their touring experience.
In addition, McKelvey was able to cast a wide net for top-tier local talent just dying to get into the mix, many of whom would be leading actors in their own rights. These include husband and wife team Leslie and Keith Claverie, Sean Patterson, Maggie Windler, Polanco Jones, Jr., Kyle Daigrepont and Baton Rouge’s Bryan DeMond.
McKelvey also made certain to tap (pun intended) the services of choreographer Jauné Buisson, with whom he has worked on several occasions for the difficult task of setting the rigorous dance moves called for in the work conceived by Louisiana-born brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick with a book by Karey Kirpatrick and John O’Farrell. McKelvey’s brilliant conducting and painstaking direction comes across in every scene and Buisson’s sterling and original choreography from tap numbers to mind-numbing transitions of every size and description is nothing short of amazing.
This is a show for lovers of Broadway and nearly every major Broadway production of the recent era is spoofed in one way or another. While some jabs – some just a few familiar notes or phrases from hits of the Great White Way – may go over the heads of the audience, most resonate well enough to elicit hysterical laughter and the result is the loudest, most explosive applause the historic facility has ever witnessed.
There are times when the applause is so thunderous and sustained that the actors have trouble staying in character. But they do.
For those unfamiliar with the show’s conceit, brothers Nick Bottom (Matthew Michael Janisse) and Nigel Bottom (Richard Spitaletta) are seen as contemporaries of William Shakespeare (Bryan DeMond). Try as hard as they may, the Bottoms fail miserably in their efforts to make any headway in the London theatre scene, where they are invariably compared to the Bard.
In “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” Nick spews forth his distaste for the onetime former member of his acting troupe, who has now achieved superstar status on his own. Even brother Nigel expresses admiration for the heralded playwright along with a number of other onstage Shakespearean devotees and gobsmacked fans.
A little bit later we see what all the fuss is about. In the number “Will Power,” DeMond takes the lead as a tight leather pants-clad Shakespeare supported by a quartet of well-choreographed backup singers. The Kirkpatricks brothers and O’Farrell depict Shakespeare as a rock star with dozens of ogling fans clamoring for just a snippet of a sonnet before swooning.
Of course, living in contemporary times with Shakespeare makes life difficult for the competition. Nick and his wife Bea (an iridescent Leslie Claverie) share meager quarters with Nigel, an unattached and awkward writer who, not unlike the Bard, possesses genuine talent. He has a chance encounter with Portia (the talented Maggie Windler), a beautiful virginal Puritan and the two begin what would seem to be an improbable affair.
These two ladies, firmly established in the top tier of musical theatre talent, have been a regular part of McKelvey’s offerings as artistic director at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane and his own Doctor Mistuh Productions. Claverie’s voice previously heard in Once Upon a Mattress soars in the humorous “Right Hand Man,” where she announces her intention to take the lead in providing for the Bottoms.
Windler, a star in 2017’s Reefer Madness, shares much of the stage with Spitaletta, but has a shining spotlight on her in both “I Love the Way” and “I See the Light” in which the two express their feelings about words and, ultimately, each other.
As to the other relationship between husband and wife Nick and Bea Bottom, the quality of mercy is positively strained. Bea disguises herself as a man in order to get consideration for a job, while Nick, feeling insecure about his ability to be the family breadwinner, chooses an ill-advised scheme in order to best Shakespeare. Through the intervention of a seer of visions or prognosticator, Nostradamus (the unflappable and hysterical Sean Patterson) is called upon to predict Shakespeare’s next big hit.
Paid with the family’s nest egg by Nick, Nostradamus is solicited to interpret visions of the future, which Nick hopes will thwart Shakespeare from becoming even bigger than he already is. In “It’s a Musical,” the two discuss how music and singing will advance the plot become the next big innovation in theatre. For Broadway enthusiasts this song alone with its rapid-fire references to boffo shows like Les Miserables, The Lion King, Rent, Annie and A Chorus Line is enough to secure its place in their hearts.
The dancing is sublime and the singing is inspirational in this selection as well as in “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” an imagined competition between Bottom and the Bard in which the former believes his use of the soothsayer will guarantee ultimate success. Such hubris by Nick invariably leads to a split with his younger, decidedly more talented brother.
Act II’s big opening number is “Hard to Be the Bard,” a hilarious, impeccably-timed piece in which Shakespeare bemoans his “difficult” existence and prattles about the stage with the assistance and support of his backing quartet. DeMond is perfectly cast in the role with his sexy swagger and his careless attitude.
By the time the conflicts reach a head, the brothers have been tested and the musical is born. The title song that leads into the musical “Omelette” is the biggest sendup in eggs since the invention of pudding. The laughs fly fast and furiously and the dancing by the entire cast is letter perfect.
Keith Claverie as Portia’s puritanical father Brother Jeremiah is another comedic standout. He is prominently featured in Act II’s “We See the Light,” an anthem for the religious right that becomes a hymn for tolerance and acceptance.
Kyle Daigrepont has his comic turns as the producer and the show’s only Jew, Shylock.
As the Minstrel, Polanco Jones, Jr. leads the cast with the first notes sung in the musical, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” which sets the time period and its most noted features. He also opens Act II with a short reprise that eventually serves as a closer for the work. Eric Wiliams is also used in comic support as Bruce, a Puritan sycophant who is perhaps a bit too close to Brother Jeremiah.
On the technical side, there are incredibly intricate and brilliant costumes by Glenn Avery Breed, fully realized sets from Steve Schepker and transcendent lighting designs by Mandi Wood. The sound by Theo Fogleman sparkles as do the orchestrations by Larry Hochman with Daid Siegel and arrangements by Glen Kelly.
Something Rotten will resonate as the perfect combination of the best in community theatre show and a national touring company. Janisse and Spitaletta are finding out that the cream at the top of the talent pool in New Orleans is every bit as good as what there is to be found on the national touring circuit. This is a musical that loves all other musicals and should be seen immediately and often by those who have been to Broadway or similarly inspired from local productions.
The regional premiere of Something Rotten! continues now through February 9 at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. Directed by Michael McKelvey with choreography by Jauné Buisson, it runs through February 9 at 616 St. Peter St. For tickets click here or call 504-522-2081.