&JULIET: Can't stop the jukebox
“&Juliet: The New Musical” , a jukebox, hip retelling of Shakepeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” should be more aptly subtitled “The Max Martin Musical”. Jammed-packed into a feminist re-imagining of the tragic love story are about 30 pop hits all but one associated with Martin, the Swedish pop songwriter and producer, who, according to the show’s Playbill, is the “genius…behind more hits than any other artist in this century” (well, at least since the 1990s) and “basically the Shakespeare of pop music.”
How the Bard would react to that comparison is befuddling. Nevertheless, here the greatest dramatist of Western civilization is challenged by wife Anne Hathaway with a “Romeo and Juliet” rewrite. Neither youthful lovers commit suicide. This “what if”, in a somewhat clever book by David West Read, TV and stage writer and producer of the popular cable comedy “Schitt’s Creek”, gets mounted like a non-stop rock concert by director Luke Sheppard, who staged this in the West End before its trip across the pond.
The story gets propelled by endless pop hits, made famous by teen divas like Brittany Spears, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, boybands like Backstreet Boys, or Justin Timberlake and his ilk. The lyrics of each song relate more or less to a plot predicament, thematic notion, or a character’s emotion at the moment. If this sounds familiar, it is. “Moulin Rouge” plumbs the same format with pop songs, as did “Head Over Heels”, although dedicated just to the Go-Go’s cannon. . “The Long Goodbye”, which tried out on the regional circuit but never made it to Broadway, successfully integrated Jeff Buckley’s songs into the Romeo and Juliet tragedy. And, premiering in Los Angeles is “Invincible - The Musical” that weaves 1980s hits by pop diva Pat Benator and husband and musical partner Neil Giraldo into the classic tale.
In this ceaselessly energetic version, Juliet (a vocally impressive Lorna Courtney), rather than suffer banishment by her parents to a nunnery, flees to Paris with her nurse Angelique (a marvelous Melanie La Barrie) and her best friend, the non-binary May (at the performance I saw the timid stand-in Michael Ivan Carrier). Juliet’s entourage crashes a ball hosted by military aristocrat Lance (opera baritone Paulo Szot) eager to see his only heir Francois (Phillipe Arroya) marry. Juliet falls for the indifferent Francois. Francois and May, unknown to Juliet, cross paths.
With some twists that nod to Shakespeare’s tricks with coincidence and role identity, the plot thickens. (You might guess how.) After Romeo (played like a boyband member with a Peter Pan complex by Ben Jackson Walker) arrives on the scene, romantic relationships finally get sorted out. Hence, we get a parable about tolerance of gender and sexuality (and you better know the difference). Plus, Juliet and Anne, wiser than Romeo and Will, take control of the narrative: another parable - female empowerment (the cis kind).
Playwright Read peppers the book with anecdotal biographical material about Will (Stark Sands plays him with egotistical bravado) ) and Anne (a feisty Betsy Wolfe) . In reference to Shakespeare’s presumed bisexuality Anne asks why he never wrote a sonnet to her only to a him; Will uncharacteristically falls silent. There’s some corny jokes with self-inflicted groans, like when Anne Hathaway quips to the audience that, yes, there is another Anne Hathaway besides herself, referring to the young film actress of the same name, which is the only Anne Hathaway most in the audience probably knew about anyway.
Read’s script doesn’t take itself all that seriously. How could it? Its silliness is obvious. The rare legitimate comedy comes in the medley number of "Teenage Dream" and "Break Free" (made hits by Katy Perry and Arianna Grande) in which Lance and Angelique confront their past as lovers. It’s hilarious to see real opera star Stotz stiffly interpret pop song lyrics as much as musical theatre veteran La Barrie camp them up, both in ways completely foreign to the original material.
The production design is rock concert cliche: smoke machines, sparkling fireworks, arena-stage lighting and a round, performance platform center stage that predictably elevates at the crescendo of the big production numbers. Costumes are a Technicolor-bright blend of Renaissance wardrobe and high-school cool. Choreography is dynamic enough, but still standard music video issue.
The audience seems to revel in “&Juliet” from the start. For the coda, theatergoers were on their feet, awash in confetti, swinging to one of Martin's biggest hits, originally recorded by Timberlake, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” Nor the jukebox musical either, evidently.