It’s always nice when we see a show that has never been performed in Ventura County so we were looking forward to seeing 5-Star Theatricals’ Something Rotten!, the 2015 sendup of Shakespeare that answers the question: “What if Shakespeare had a rival?” As you will read in our upcoming review in The Acorn, we were not disappointed. Something Rotten! is a riotous romp with a twisted premise, as brother Nick and Nigel Bottom attempt to upstage (literally) theatre superstar Willie Shakespeare with their next production: the first musical. Due to the faulty efforts of a befuddled Nostradamus, the Bottom Brothers set out to produce their musical, titled Omelette. Recently, we visited with two stars from 5-Star’s production: Justin Michael Wilcox, who plays Nick Bottom, and Aleks Pevec, who plays the strutting Shakespeare.
Wilcox has trod the boards of the Fred Kavli Theatre before; playing Smee in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s final production, Peter Pan, in 2017. Wilcox has made the rounds of many Southern California venues, including the Hollywood Bowl, Musical Theatre West, and many others in addition to receiving several Ovation nominations.
Pevec was in the ensemble when Something Rotten! made its Broadway debut and also understudied for the role he is playing now. He’s spent the last ten years on Broadway. In addition to Rotten!, he also appeared in the revival of Evita and the original cast of Aladdin, not to mention performing at the Tony Awards and the Kennedy Center.
VCOS: Aleks, you’re an old hand at Something Rotten! which brings up this question: how do you compare learning a part for a brand new musical that you haven’t seen before with one that you’re already familiar with, either one that you’ve appeared in or have seen a number of performances?
ALEKS: In a brand new musical that I’ve never worked on before, I have the freedom to do whatever I want with it, how I view the character to be. Working on Something Rotten! it was hard to break a lot of habits, doing stuff that I hadn’t done before in New York. So it has its gifts and its challenges but at the same time, doing a show like Something Rotten! for two years and knowing the show inside and out, I felt that because of the rehearsal time that we had – we had to put it together in two weeks – I had a little bit of a leg up because I knew the show so well as opposed to if it were a brand new show that I had never worked in before. Justin has a ton of lines in the show. He never leaves the stage once. But I’ve been there before on both sides and they both have their benefits and their distractions.
VOCS: What part did you play before?
ALEKS: I was in the ensemble and also understudied Shakespeare. So I was always hearing the Shakespeare lines, hearing them saying the same lines in the same way every night for two years, and it was hard to break out of that. But it was fun this time around doing it myself because this is a brand new production and it was Richard [director Israel] and Michelle’s [choreographer Elkin] vision, so it was cool to find my own little quirks where I could put my own personality into the role.
VCOS: Such as…?
ALEKS: I wanted Shakespeare to be like Christian [Borle] played him in New York; a real suave rock star, but I wanted to tap a little more into Shakespeare’s own insecurities and how he had peaks and valleys in his personality, such as when he was embarrassed to admit that life isn’t as easy for him as everybody else thinks it is. And that was fun to play with and find on my own.
VCOS: One role that comes to mind when I see you as Shakespeare is Pharoah in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
ALEKS: I’ve never played Pharoah. That would be fun. I grew up in Hawaii and Joseph was actually the very first show that I did there. The Donny Osmond tour was supposed to come to the island and got canceled and a local theatre that I still go back and work with decided to put on Joseph and I auditioned and I got to do that show. I haven’t touched that show since I was ten years old, but Pharoah would be an awesome role because he’s so Elvisy but I feel that my Shakespeare is a little more David Bowie or Lady Gaga.
VCOS: How about you, Justin? Brand new musical or familiar role?
JUSTIN: I’ve done a lot of new musicals, both great and not so great. But like Aleks said, with a new musical you really get to originate something, you get to put your stamp on it and when I approach that, I’m always eager to dig into the language and the words, what the person says, what other people say about him and then try and bring as much of myself into that; and that’s if we are working with a really creative team. I’d seen Something Rotten! three times; the original, then when Rob [McClure] and Josh [Grisetti] took over for the tour. When we started rehearsals with 5-Star, I specifically didn’t look at anything else anymore because I already had an idea of what this show was, based on what I had seen, but I didn’t want those performances to influence the ridiculousness that I wanted to bring to the role.
VCOS: Did the director allow you to go out of your comfort zone?
JUSTIN: To be quite honest, I’m not as easily frustrated or angry as Nick is, and I’m also not under the same pressure that he is, and the challenge with that is, the way that this is written, because it is a comedy, there is a specific rhythm to how the scenes build into the songs and there has to be a certain level of energy so they don’t seem to come out of nowhere. I’m supposed to be angry when I do the song, so how do I make it come from love and frustration because he’s trying to do something but it’s not going so well for him.
VCOS: Is Nick basically a good guy?
JUSTIN: Yeah. I think he’s doing all the wrong things for the right reasons. He’s trying to take care of his wife and provide and take care of his brother, and at the same time he’s very suspicious that Shakespeare has stolen ideas from people so he’s just trying to protect everybody that’s around him. He’s just not very good at doing it.
VCOS: The energy never lets up in this show. I don’t think there is much time for anyone to have a quiet moment except in the song “To Thine Own Self Be True.” Is it hard to maintain that high energy level throughout the show?
JUSTIN: I’m a very energetic person (laughs). What did you say, Aleks? You said, “I don’t ever see you being tired. You’re like a child outside of a Star Wars movie.” So, yeah, I have a lot of energy, but it’s just so fun, every moment to me is just cherished because we don’t have a long run and it’s just so fun being there. It’s true that I am on stage a lot, but you should see the mayhem that is happening off stage. The ensemble is working so hard. If they’re not on stage, they’re off stage, changing into a different costume because they have to become somebody else. So it’s really non stop for everybody. Sometimes being on stage and saying some lines and being actively engaging is easier than running off and trying to get a new wig and a new mike, so this whole show is just constant energy. Everybody is so joyous and happy to be there. It’s so much fun to finally having an audience after rehearsing it, and just to hear the laughter and feel like, “We got ’em.”
VCOS: How about you, Aleks?
ALEKS: Yeah, I had the unusual pleasure of being in the ensemble for two years. I loved being in the ensemble in New York because it was the kind of show that there was never any rest time back stage. The first number would start and then, all of a sudden, you’d be at the end of the show and, “Wow, it went by so fast!” That’s the kind of show I prefer to be in because I feel that I’m used and am useful and I’m important to the plot as an ensemble member. Shakespeare doesn’t come into show until 40 minutes after the show started, but when he does come in, my show is like boom-boom-boom: back stage, costume change, back on stage. Not a lot of people have sit-down time in the show; it moves so quickly. This show is special, too, because I find myself at times just hanging out by the wings if I’m not in the scene, just watching, because it’s just so engaging and joyful. It’s fun to see people who are passionate about this art form, especially after a two-year pandemic. To be off stage and watch people do what they love to do brings me just as much joy as being on stage myself.
VCOS: To be an actor, you have to train your mind to concentrate and stay focused. But I was wondering, when you are in a limited run like this one is, does it ever occur to you to try something wild – just once – and you hold back until maybe the last performance?
ALEKS: I think both Justin and I try new stuff in every performance, don’t we, Justin?
ALEKS: Justin is always doing new stuff and I’m always trying new stuff. It’s our show now, right? The creative process is done, tech week is done, and now it’s our turn to hold it together. It’s fun to play off each other. Of course, in a short run, you don’t want to make huge changes that will mess up everybody else, especially with the little scenes I have with Justin. They’ve always been really different.
JUSTIN: There’s such a fun rivalry between us and I wish there was more of it. I spend a lot of time with Nigel, my brother, who’s played by Frankie Zabilka, who is wonderful. In all of these scenes, he’s really great, Aleks is really great, but sometimes things happen in the moment where I would feel that something is right to try. Or I’ll notice that he said a line differently and I’ll think, “OK, I’m going to mimic that” or counter that energy by being calm, or I’ll try to top his energy. Then it becomes how to find our way out of this new energy. That, to me, is where the electricity is.
VCOS: So you work off of each other.
JUSTIN: Yeah. And Aleks is such an idiot on stage, man, [Aleks laughs] because Shakespeare gets to do whatever and he taps into the freedom of that. We’ve had several moments where he’ll do something and I’m looking at him like “I hate you” because I want to laugh at that so hard but I have to be angry.
VCOS: Aleks, did you research Shakespeare? Is there anything that’s real about this character?
ALEKS: In my portrayal of Shakespeare? Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to it but the writers went to a lot of trouble not making it strictly a Renaissance period piece and they make it more contemporary so I think that they took a lot of historical facts about Shakespeare and stuff that I researched about him and just blended them together.
VCOS: Do you think he was treated as a superstar back then, in their own way?
ALEKS: Well, yeah, compared to the fictional Nick and Nigel Bottom, these two writers who are trying to compete with this guy who is having hit after hit after hit. So I assume so. What do you think, Justin?
JUSTIN: As a true Nick Bottom I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare actually wrote all these things by himself. All that controversy aside, I’m too ignorant to have a true opinion about it.
VCOS: Maybe there was a little plagiarism hiding there in the bushes somewhere.
JUSTIN: That being said, as funny as this show is, when Nigel is saying some of these words or Shakespeare is saying some of these words in telling the actual plot of Hamlet, or these lines from Romeo and Juliet, there are these beautiful pauses that make you stop and think, “This is real. Shakespeare’s quill had so much power.” That’s what I love about show. It’s stupid, it’s funny, it’s over the top, but there are these wonderful moments where we come down to earth and realize that this person really gave the gift of language to us. So there is a lot of reality in the show.
VCOS: Taking something from your bio, I have to ask Aleks what it was like performing for the Obamas.
ALEKS: Oh, it was wonderful! The coolest thing I remember about it was we got to meet Michelle afterward. They put you in a line and there’s a military guy standing there with a card that has the names of everyone who is walking up to her in order. And as you’re walking up, he whispers your name to her so when you engage with her, she says your name. “Oh, Aleks, it’s so good to see you, thank you so much for being here.” It just made the moment so personal. I’m sure they do this all the time with plenty of celebrities but that was really special. And I got to tell her that I went to Punahou high school in Hawaii where Barack went to high school because I grew up there as well so it was nice having that little interaction. But it was really cool performing in the East Wing.
VCOS: What did you sing?
ALEKS: We did “Hard to Be the Bard.”
VCOS: Justin, do you have moment to compare with that?
JUSTIN: Not like Michelle Obama! but one time I did a show up in Santa Barbara and Jonathan Pryce and Cloris Leachman were in it and I could literally take up two hours telling stories about Cloris Leachman and how crazy and wonderful she was. There’s a long story that goes with this, but I had to feed her a line one time and she was not happy about it. But she was a jokester and during a performance I had to walk her off stage so instead of letting go of my hand and taking the hand of the stagehand, she clung to my arm for dear life and was like a dead weight on me and would not let me go back on stage. So I missed the entrance for my next song and couldn’t get on for five counts when I finally was able to let go and join the group. She was just cackling away stage left.
VCOS: Well, this show was anything but “something rotten.” You guys were great.
Something Rotten! concludes its run on Sunday, February 13 at the Kavli Theatre at the Bank of America Performing Arts Center in Thousand Oaks. For tickets, visit 5startheatricals.com.