Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Through December 31
I’m of two minds about this upbeat musical (the bus and truck production of the 2014 Broadway hit) which is about theater during Shakespeare’s time. Credited to Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, it’s cheerful, peppy, energetic, and at times quite cute. While you’re watching it, you feel as if you’re seeing a familiar and old-fashioned work — a show with the creakiness of an old theatrical standby, whose title you can’t quite recall. Can this be one of those “open-and-closed-after-20-previews-in-the-70s” shows that might have slipped your attention in your “Modern Musicals” class at school?
At the same time, the show really isn’t that engaging. The plot is rather lame and strains even the most gossomery threads of intelligent storytelling. The book is flimsy, yet at the same time top heavy with concepts that come across as stale before they’re out of the oven. And the music: Well, it may seem like carping to sneer about whether a musical contains “hummable bits,” but this is the sort of show that lives and dies on its score – and the score just simpers with shallow tunes and lame rhymes like “don’t be a penis/ Shakespeare’s a genius!”
The story takes place during the 16th century Elizabethan era when theater was soaring. This was the Golden Age when no one worried about the 99-seat contract; a new work by Shakespeare or Marlowe went up almost every week, and if you weren’t dying of the plague or being burned as a witch or for being a Catholic, it was a fine time to be alive.
But two brothers, Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel (Josh Grisetti) Bottom, are unlucky enough to be writer/producers working at the same time as the Great Bard (Adam Pascal, hilariously charismatic in a turn that calculatedly imitates a modern rock star). When Shakespeare, well known in his time for poaching ideas from other writers, steals Nick and Nigel’s scheme to write a play about Richard II, the two brothers desperately struggle for a new work.
Nick risks his life savings to hire a soothsayer, delightfully dubbed “Thomas” Nostradamus (a blustery Blake Hammond) to predict Shakespeare’s greatest hit, which Nick and Nigel then plan to write first. The trouble is, although Thomas does see the future, his reception is sometimes a bit fuzzy, and he predicts Shakespeare’s greatest play to be a drama about a Dane who loves eggs called “Omelet.”
The awful play — which the brothers stage with chorus girls dancing in egg costumes — is an intentionally grotesque debacle that predictably bombs like a rotten egg. Meanwhile, Nigel falls in love with a sultry Puritan (Autumn Hurlbert), and Nick has trouble keeping his wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) at home when she wants to be out working to help the family.
It’s a production that skirts a long way on sheer charm. In director Casey Nicholaw’s staging, the dance numbers are full of zippy gestures and more examples of jazz hands than you remember from your high school production of Pippin. And there’s a lot here for folks who just love musicals; the work is larded with inside theater jokes smartly calculated to appeal to high school theater kids (and to older theater queens such as oneself).
A lavish music number in which Thomas predicts Cats, West Side Story and Les Miserables (much to Nick’s disgusted disbelief) is quite funny. And Pascal’s weird David Bowie-like Shakespeare is kind of an inspiration. Nice turns are also offered by Hammond and by Jeff Brooks as a Jewish theatrical investor named “Shylock.” (One of the play’s more amusing conceits is that the characters’ names match those in Shakespeare’s plays, suggesting that the Bard may have ripped them off.
Nevertheless, there’s little heft to either the music or the book. The lyrics and dialogue are sugary and the music is full of loud screechy production numbers. Many of the plot twists feel derivative, even when it’s not entirely clear where the writers might have found their original inspiration. The relationships are contrived and lack chemistry: the ease with which agnostic playwright Nigel seduces innocent Puritan Portia is awkward and comes across as totally loopy and perfunctory. It’s hard to warm to McClure’s downright unpleasant Nick or to Grisetti’s limp Nigel.
Perhaps the main issue with the show is that it is never able to evade being middling in every particular. Yes, there is music, but it’s not music that compels. Certainly there’s humor in the book, but no exchange or device dazzles. And the characterizations are workmanlike and flimsy. It’s as if the entire thing is ready to be shipped out on the high school circuit: innocuous, inoffensive, and just a bit boring.
Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. & 6 p.m.; through December 31. (213) 972-4400 or http://centertheatregroup.org. Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.