By Barry Reszel
Nationally, musical theatre aficionados in the know toss out the three-initialed NPH when referring to Doogie Howser-turned-Broadway-sensation Neil Patrick Harris.
Chicagoland musical theatre devotees do the same with JBD. And no one need look beyond Marriott Theatre’s hilariously impeccable production of Something Rotten! to fully understand why. Because you really haven’t been welcomed to the Renaissance until the exhuberant Jonathan Butler-Duplessis ushers you in with song and dance.
It’s casting perfection by Director Scott Weinstein to name JBD as the Minstrel, a role for which this site’s haphazardly bestowed “Konstantin Stanislavski No Small Parts Award” is truly made. As background, the Russian theatre oligarch known for his method acting technique is credited with saying, “Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors.” So we occasionally point out particularly memorable performances by actors’ portrayals with modest stage time. Certainly the Minstrel in Something Rotten! is that, and Butler-Duplessis is infinitely deserving of the moniker. But more than this, the opening number, “Welcome to the Renaissance,” requires a knockout vocalist at its lead. Limited stage minutes or not, this part, this number sets the production’s expectations in audiences’ minds.
That’s particularly important to Something Rotten! where the songbook’s most memorable songs are its first four: “Welcome to the Renaissance,” “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” Right Hand Man” and “A Musical.” These hilariously set the story of the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, playwrights and producers in Elizabethan England, 1595, who compete with the wildly popular and egotistical William Shakespeare and are willing to do almost anything to achieve the success enjoyed by NIck’s nemesis/Nigel’s hero, The Bard. The song, “God I hate Shakespeare,” warms the hearts of anyone (even some once and future English majors) who slogged through high school discussions of Macbeth, King Lear or a unit on sonnets. It was much ado about something. A full plot synopsis, with spoilers, and production history of this 2015 multi-Tony-nominated show may be read here.
Above all, Something Rotten! (book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick) is the ultimate send-up (endearingly so) of the musical theatre genre. To wit, click this link to enjoy a few Marriott production highlights centering on the song, “A Musical,” that parodies treasured favorites from Evita and Les Misérables to Annie and The Sound of Music, among many, many others. With a mostly memorable songbook (music and lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick), hysterical physical comedy, superlative choreography (by Alex Sanchez) and top onstage talent, (JBD is just the start) Marriott’s Something Rotten! is a delight to warm audiences’ hearts as fall’s cool climes settle in.
With credits from the West End to Broadway to Hollywood, newcomer to the Marriott stage KJ Hippensteel takes on the Brian D’Arcy James‘ Broadway role as theatre manager, playwright, director and Bard-hater Nick Bottom. His booming voice and tender acting command the stage, taking control of the terrific cast that includes Chicagoland favorite Alex Goodrich as his sweetly socially-lacking, poetry-writing little brother Nigel (played on Broadway by John Cariani).
So too does Adam Jacobs, who gained fame originating the Broadway role of Aladdin, equal if not better the portrayal of Will Shakespeare that earned Christian Borle a 2015 Tony. And as Nick’s gutsy wife Bea, dynamic Cassie Slater slays the role originated on Broadway by Heidi Blickenstaff, mirroring her take-no-prisoners’ approach and having her way with her signature song, “Right Hand Man,” among the finest in the show.
Other performances of note in this energetic ensemble of townspeople, puritans, theatre troupe members and more, all blending in song and dance, include the Jeff nom-worthy one from Ross Lehman as the hysterical Nostradamus; that from the lovely Rebeca Hurd as poetry-loving puritan Portia (whose ballad with Goodrich, “I Love the Way,” is simply gorgeous); and Steven Stafford‘s take on wanna-be producer Shylock.
Each member of a strong ensemble brings his/her/their individual triple-threat ebullience to become a finely tuned unit and deliver what’s expected from Marriot—high quality professionalism. It’s matched across the board with Theresa Ham‘s costumes, Jesse Klug‘s lighting and the terrific sound from Ryan T. Nelson’s musicians, directed by Patti Garwood. If there’s a nit, it’s that several of the men’s looks would would benefit from theatrical wigs under the hot lights.
All said, let JBD welcome patrons to the Renaissance at Marriott this fall, where this fresh Rotten! promises to delight thousands through October’s third week.
Marriott Theatre presents “Something Rotten” through October 20 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here.