Review: With GCP’s hilarious ‘Something Rotten!,’ you can’t hate Shakespeare even if you try


There is nothing rotten about “Something Rotten!”

In fact, I would be hard-pressed to even find something even remotely mediocre to say about this stellar Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. The acting and singing is first-rate, the direction by Laurie Pessano smooth and clever, the costumes gor-ge-ous (I’m making that a three-syllable word for emphasis) and the comic timing superb. This is only the first show of the 2020 season, and I’m already thinking it has to be a front-runner for best GCP production of the year.

How do I love thee, “Rotten”? Let me count the ways:

Pictured above: Roger Christensen and Carol Foose star in ‘Something Rotten!’ Photo: Good Company Players

1. The book is a kick without being too full of itself. Goofy takes on Shakespeare have been done before. So have loving and irreverent homages to the musical theater genre. Where “Something Rotten!” (with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick) succeeds is in its easy-going tone, self-deprecating wit and eager acknowledgement that, in the end, it’s all about growing — and then harvesting — laughs.


2. Shakespeare as rock star? It works. Shawn Williams, in a whiplash-inducing character turn (he just came off a two-month run as the agreeably doltish Buddy in “Elf: The Musical” to pick up as a sexed-up, coyly narcissistic literary superstar), finds the silliness in the role without turning himself into a stock Elvis character. The idea is that Shakespeare is busy churning out hit after hit, while a struggling ex-colleague of his, the resentful Nick Bottom (played by Jacob Phelen in a slow-simmer hilarious performance), is figuring out ways to best his rival. That leads us to Nick seeking a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradamus (not the Nostradamus but a nephew, played by Steve Souza, in what could be his funniest role yet) to suss out Shakespeare’s next big hit. Unfortunately, psychic wavelengths get crossed, and while Nostradamus is able to predict the coming popularity of the Broadway musical — which allows for lots of loving pokes at the genre — he announces that the title to beat is “Omelette,” not “Hamlet.”

Related story: Sayeth Steve Souza: Predicting the future in Good Company’s ‘Something Rotten!’ isn’t perfect, but it’s hilarious

3. The sexual innuendo is so completely inculcated into the show that it crosses the line from titillating to just plain goofy. One of a trillion examples: “My father said this to me / That he did and then he blew me / Away with wisdom simple and concise.” Just read those lyrics out loud with pauses for each line break, and you’ll see what I mean. The risque humor is silly and sophomoric, but it’s also — and I struggle to put this into words so it comes out right — endearing. After all, Shakespeare has plenty of bawdy moments in his plays, as my high school English teacher was so delighted to share with my class, and the nudge-and-wink bits in this extended homage to him (Shakespeare, not my high school English teacher) just feel, well, right.

4. A new Good Company Player makes a big splash. We’ve seen veterans such as Williams, Phelen, Souza, Emily Pessano (as Nick’s devoted wife, Bea), Thomas Hayes (in a delightful turn as Nigel, Nick’s idealistic brother), Alex Figueroa (as a sweet-toned Minstrel) and many of the ensemble members before. What a delight it is to meet Carol Foose, an East Coast transplant to Fresno. She plays Portia, daughter of the local Puritan rabble rouser and Nigel’s star-crossed love interest. Her vocals are wonderful, and Foose’s stage presence — her accentuated movements, crisp double entendres and exaggerated, trilling hint of naughtiness — elevates the material to a higher comic level.

5. Speaking of hilarious, could Roger Christensen’s hat be any more perfect? Christensen himself ain’t bad, either, as Brother Jeremiah, the resident religious scold who spends his time railing against theater, poetry, having fun, etc., while at the same time blundering into various word salads that could land on the menu of your local gay pub. Not only does Christensen make the most of his host of sexual innuendos, he does so with a Jonathan Edwards-inspired ferocity that could scare the sin out of anyone.

Good Company Players

The costumes — and acting — are highlights in ‘Something Rotten!’

6. The costumes are sublime. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed puts a subtly modern spin on the standard Renaissance fare. (Ha. I made a funny. As a “Something Rotten!”-style complete and random aside, do you think that people living in Elizabethan times ever considered that hundreds of years in the future, there would be fairs in their honor?) The era is there in terms of doublets, corsets, hose, floppy hats, etc., but it’s upgraded. Case in point: Brother Jeremiah’s sleeves, part of a handsomely constructed black outfit highlighted by touches of stark white, would get an “impeccably tailored” thumbs-up from those mean judges on “Project Runway.” The skin-tight-leather budget alone for the show must have cost a Pessano a kidney.

7. Steve Souza’s wig. It deserves a sonnet all by itself. He looks like a lion caught in a wind tunnel.

8. Emily Pessano and Kaye Migaki’s choreography. The dancing in the show is fierce and fun, and the tap numbers (by Migaki) are filled with bluster and bravado. Considering the dozens of musical-theater references and mini-homages in the show, the choreography feels fresh and inspired while still offering us some iconic moments. Among other technical credits, David Pierce’s set evokes a peppy London vibe, vocal coach Laurie Bridges coaxes strong singing, and lighting designer Joielle Adams (also doubling as the stage manager — whew!) keeps a bright and bouncy tone.

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9. The ensemble just keeps going. Whether the hard-working cast is scurrying around as Elizabethan actors, grumpy Puritans, literary groupies or leather-clad “Bard Boys” (that honor goes to Jonathan Aguirre, Agustin Chapa, and Xavier Gonzalez, along with Andrew Mickelson, who also makes a mark by being the obligatory character in drag), the energy level was consistent and the boisterous spirit of the material always at the forefront. It’s the kind of show you want to see a second time just to watch the folks in the background.

10. Finally, I don’t think any of this would be as great as it is without Laurie Pessano. She directs the material within the small confines of the Roger Rocka’s stage with every bit as much professional polish as I saw in both the touring version that came to the Saroyan Theatre and the original Broadway production. There’s a wonderful Fresno connection to the show, by the way. I got the chance to interview Heidi Blickenstaff, the GCP alum who originated the role of Bea, before watching her in performance in New York. (I still remember climbing those narrow, creaking stairs up into what seemed the rafters of the St. James Theatre to Heidi’s dressing room.) Heidi started in the Junior Company and went on to mainstage GCP shows before becoming a Broadway (and Disney!) star, and in our interview, I remember making a comment on how cool it would be when “Something Rotten!” was available to perform by theaters the size of GCP. (It actually didn’t take very long.) She agreed. I don’t know if Heidi will get a chance to see this production, but I’d like to think she’d be proud, especially of Emily Pessano, who plays Bea with such pluck and aplomb.

There’s one other person I’d be curious to pump for a “Rotten” reaction, and that would be Shakespeare himself. Not possible at this moment, of course, and, who knows, maybe the guy was allergic to leather. But I’d like to think he’d have a good laugh at “Something Rotten!” I certainly did.

Show info

‘Something Rotten!,’ a Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. Continues through Sept. 16. Tickets (some including dessert or dinner) are $32-$60.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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