Evanston news delivered free to your inbox!
Attention musical theater-lovers, fans of Shakespeare and anyone else craving the sensation of watching a live performance presented in a venue with people other than your family. It’s time to reserve a seat at the Ethel M. Barber Theater at Northwestern to attend “Something Rotten!” presented by a cast of multitalented students.
The premise of the show is a rivalry between two playwrights in 1595 London. People are just venturing out after the Black Death tore through Europe, killing millions. (It is no coincidence that this musical is the one selected to kick off the new, abbreviated season at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.) London is pulsating with untapped energy. The plays of William Shakespeare (Peter Carroll) are all the rage, making the playwright a VIP celebrity and frustrating up-and-coming playwrights.
The playwright/director Nick Bottom (Sean Zuckerman) is jealous of the Bard. Nick is also at risk of losing the support of his benefactor if he doesn’t come up with a new play by the next day. Nick works with his younger brother, the moony Nigel Bottom (Declan Collins), who writes romantic poetry and pines for the lovely Portia (Jenna Sage). Desperate for an idea to overtake the Bard’s success, Nick pays a soothsayer, Nancy Nostradamus (Mariana Leone), a distant relative of the other Nostradamus, to see into the future and tell him what kind of play he should write, all the while ignoring common sense and good advice from his wife, Bea (Emily Brooks).
The Minstrel (Adelina Marinello) opens the show and belts out the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance.” From that energetic launch, the show takes off. The songs are zesty and sung with heart, enhanced by a small group of talented musicians tucked into an upper corner of the stage. The dancing spills across multiple genres including tap, chorus line kicks, a rocking dance party plus a few nods to Bob Fosse. References to more than 30 Broadway shows are sprinkled throughout “Something Rotten!,” but the majority are packed into the Act I number, “The Musical.”
The costumes complement the lighting and set designs, which are spare and efficient. Lady Clapham and Shakespeare’s costumes are especially eye-catching. The cast uses every inch of the two-level stage, including staircases, railings and the floor around three sides of the stage. The bonus of this set up is there are no bad seats.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. They are clearly having a blast as they sing and dance around the stage, and their joy is contagious. Carroll, as Shakespeare, delivers a performance that is both unforgettable and unforgettably funny. His Shakespeare is a Lothario mixed with some early Elvis. After seeing this performance, the image of the Bard as a bald, elderly man is chucked to the waste bin of history forever.
Zuckerman, who played Nick, described how the play’s well-known director Rory Pelsue and dramaturges Phoenix Gonzalez and Deon Custard thoroughly researched the period and readied the cast.
“We received a 20- to 30-page dramaturgical packet that was given to us before the first rehearsal,” Zuckerman explained. “They did deep research into the period, making sure we stayed true to the era as much of a farce as it is.”
The director’s advice was invaluable to the cast when it came to making the jokes and making people laugh. “The director said, ‘If you stick to the truth, if you play the truth of it, that’s what will be funny. You just have to believe what you’re saying, and then other people will believe it, too.’ That’s been like a mantra for the cast,” Zuckerman said.
The show runs through Feb. 20, so don’t dillydally. For tickets and health and COVID-19 attendance guidelines, visit the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts website.