Thursday, December 1, 2022

& Juliet (Stephen Sondheim Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s an often witty and generally clever feminist riff on “Romeo and Juliet.” In this telling, William Shakespeare's strong-willed wife, Anne Hathaway, strenuously objects to the original ending of the play and insists that after Romeo dies, Juliet ought to survive and have a happy life free from the strictures of the male dominated Verona. What ensues is a marital battle of quills, as the action plays out before us.

This happens to be a jukebox musical loaded with familiar top 40 hits by the producer/songwriter Max Martin and various collaborators (sharply orchestrated and arranged by Bill Sherman). So we hear familiar chart-busters from the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson, among others.

That utterly incongruous and anachronistic juxtaposition of contemporary song and Elizabethan era script make for a lot of the fun.

Juliet (Lorna Courtney), in David West Read’s amusing book, is a feisty gal who knows her own mind and decides to buck her parents Lord and Lady Capulet (Nicholas Edwards and Veronica Otim) and hit the road with her sassy nurse Angélique (a delightfully sharp-tongued Melanie La Barrie), and non-binary BFF May (touching Justin David Sullivan).

As Will (Stark Sands) and Anne (Betsy Wolfe) argue about the script, they themselves assume characters in the play: Will as a coachman and Anne as Juliet's worldly-wise older girlfriend April. 

Off they flee to Paris, crash a party hosted by rich kid François (Philippe Arroyo) whose stern father Lance (Paolo Szot in a delightfully wacky change of pace) wants the boy to wed or face life in the military. But (wouldn’t you know?) it’s attraction at first sight for the conflicted François and May and…well, you can guess the rest.

I suppose it’s only a tiny spoiler to reveal that Romeo does, in fact, make a second act appearance but, in this telling, it’s not necessarily a sure bet that he’ll reconnect with his former bride. (He was played by strong-voiced Daniel Maldonado at my performance, subbing for Ben Jackson Walker.)

Read’s book is a politically correct mélange of female empowerment, gay pride and identity, presented in a light-hearted, audience-pleasing manner. The show mixes elements of “Six,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Something Rotten.”

Southa Gilmour’s set is a colorful delight of flashing lighting effects, moving platforms, and air-borne set pieces. Paloma Young’s costumes are cheekily 16th century with a modern-day twist.

Lauren Courtney, in a stunning Broadway debut, raises the roof more than once with her powerful vocals and great stage presence. She has great comedic timing, and this is a real star-making performance.

Sands and Wolfe are strong as the battling Shakespeares, with Read’s script giving them some humorously sharp ripostes. All get their opportunity to shine vocally.

Szot, in a delightfully silly departure from his roles at the Met and as Emile DeBeque in “South Pacific,” really lets down his hair particularly in a second act boy band number, and he and La Barrie make a wonderfully daffy pair. (It turns out Lance and Angélique had a thing years before.)

The show opened in Manchester and then London’s West End in 2019 winning three Olivier Awards and it continues to run at the Shaftesbury Theatre there. If the reaction of the audience at my performance was any indication, I predict it will enjoy a comparably healthy run here.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 123 West 43 Street;

Photos by Matthew Murphy: (top) (l.-r.) Melanie La Barrie and Lorna Courtney

Below: (l.-r.) Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe

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