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Scrambling Shakespeare and inventing a musical in ‘Something Rotten!’

Josh Grisetti (left, center) plays Nigel Bottom with and Rob McClure as Nick Bottom in the musical "Something Rotten!," at the Oriental Theatre through July 23. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

When it comes to “Something Rotten!,” the Broadway musical now in a national touring stop at the Oriental Theatre, it might be best to begin with a recipe. You will understand why as you read on. But be advised: Along the way a dozen or two farm fresh eggs might have to undergo some vigorous scrambling.

When: Through July 23
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $27 – $98
Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com

So here goes: Into a large mixing bowl pour a grand enough budget to mount a Broadway musical with a “Forbidden Broadway” vibe. Then add the main ingredient — liberal helpings of Shakespeare (diced), from “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “Twelfth Night” and more. And be sure to stir in some funny quips about Shakespeare in the Park, too.

Stir vigorously, fold in countless zany references to almost every musical you’ve ever seen – from “Cats,” to “The Sound of Music,” “A Chorus Line,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and anything featuring a big tap dance spectacle – and garnish with a hint of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “The Producers.”

Adam Pascal (top, center) plays William Shakespeare in the musical “Something Rotten!” at the Oriental Theatre. | Joan Marcus Photo

Credit for this recipe goes to Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (who wrote the show’s fine pastiche score), with Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell penning the book and “borrowing” just enough flavoring via the Bard of Avon (who, of course, did his own fair share of literary “borrowing”). But for overall zestiness much of the credit here must go to director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, a master chef and mischief-maker with a gift for adding just the right amounts of zany, lip-smacking goofiness and exuberant high spirits to whatever he cooks up, including “The Book of Mormon” and “Aladdin” (now running a few blocks away at the Cadillac Palace). Nicholaw’s pure, unadulterated show biz flair is unmatched, as is his ability to whip up meringue-like satire.

To be sure, “Something Rotten!” is no serious meal of a musical. It’s an elaborate dessert that might have been cooked up by a popular chain. And with 20 minutes less running time it might have been even tastier. That aside, it’s an ideal summertime indulgence.

Though set in Elizabethan England, the show’s opening number — “Welcome to the Renaissance” — establishes the overall tone as it plays havoc with anachronistic music while paying homage to the period, with lavish costumes (applause for Gregg Barnes) that include doublet-clad men with laughably prominent codpieces dancing against a backdrop of Tudor-style buildings. The most prominent of these structures is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre whose marquee heralds the arrival of “Romeo  & Juliet.” But a new-fangled form — the musical — is about to be created, and it will bear the title “Omelette.” So there you have it.

Well, not quite. Here’s the story: The Bottom brothers (their name pays homage to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) are desperately toiling in the shadow of that rock star-like playwright of the moment, William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal in glam rock moto jacket mode), a dramatist known for his heavily “borrowed” plots. Nick Bottom (Rob McClure), a ne’er-do-well theater maker, is jealous, while his younger sibling, Nigel (golden voiced Josh Grisetti, who’d be a natural for a musical about Hans Christian Andersen), is a nerdy but truly gifted poet with high ideals.

The Bottoms’ patron complains about their lack of a hit, but their theater-besotted Jewish friend, Shylock (Jeff Brooks), is forbidden by law to be their producer. So Nick, whose fiercely liberated and loving wife, Bea (sassy, clarion-voiced Maggie Lakis) has just announced she is pregnant, heads off to consult a soothsayer, Nostradamus (the deftly comic Blake Hammond), hoping to figure out his future. He is told of a new form on the horizon — a singing, dancing, acting entertainment. And while a possible title (“Hamlet”) hovers in the air, it is transposed as “Omelette.” Cue the frying pans and the first musical. Meanwhile, Nigel unexpectedly finds the love of his life — Portia (a Kristen Chenoweth-like Autumn Hurlbert) — a poetry fan whose father is a wildly conservative Puritan who wants to shut down London’s theaters.

Suffice it to say, “Omelette” (rich in Python-esque overtones) debuts. And its indisputable highlight is a fabulously wacky tap-dancing chorus of boiled eggs complete with runny yolks. I will say no more except that the concept of the musical will soon be exported to the New World. And that, according to “Something Rotten!,” is how Broadway was born.

Autumn Hurlbert plays Portia and Josh Grisetti is Nigel Bottom in “Something Rotten,” the Broadway musical at the Oriental Theatre. | Joan Marcus