What if Juliet had lived? What if she had not given her 14-year-old life for a wild boy she barely knew? What if she had not let brash youthful narcissism deformed by the patriarchy and male violence overtake her better judgement and lived a full, happy, maybe even quiet life well into whatever passed for adulthood in 14th Century Verona.
Directed by Luke Sheppard and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, & Juliet, the new jukebox musical of songs written by super-producer Max Martin (“and friends,” as the credits read), with a book by Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read, posits an answer to all those questions, though “quiet” never quite enters the equation. No, had Juliet lived, this musical, opening tonight on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, suggests she and her pals would spend a great deal of their time belting ballads of empowerment and lecturing all within earshot about pride, identity and other important takeaways of the 21st Century.
Perhaps, we’re left thinking, these kids really do have a future – maybe they’ll grow up and be in the much better Six.
It’s not that & Juliet is unenjoyable – it isn’t. Somewhere beneath the bombast and repetition and overwrought-from-minute-one approach is a sweet(ish) and smart(ish) tale that gives voice to the marginalized and, not incidentally, provides fans of the music of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Kesha, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Bon Jovi, Celine Dion, Pink and Justin Timberlake a chance to hear their favorite songs in a musical that makes no secret of its identity: A jukebox takes early pride of place on the set.
Those songs, not incidentally, have something, or someone, in common: Martin, the superproducer whose take-no-prisoners approach to constructing anthems and ballads and upbeat tunes of defiance and self-proclamation have given careers to numerous superstars and voice to countless youthful fans.
That Martin’s productions employ an easily marketable – though not so easily copied – formula – relatively uncomplicated melodies, lyrics with plenty of repetition, singleminded message and not overmuch nuance, along with a sense of dramatic build that sprints halfway up the climb and keeps going – is no secret to anyone who has heard a few of his hits. in other words, all sentient creatures within earshot of a radio, TV or streaming service. Taken on their own, songs such as Spear’s “Since U Been Gone” and “Baby One More Time,” Perry’s “Roar” and “I Kissed a Girl” make fine drive-time company and, at best (as experienced by millions of fans) a sort of generational soundtrack. To argue with their success would be as crotchety as it is silly.
But presented together, one after another after another, the songs can move from inspirational to browbeating in record time. And they do.
Tying the various Martin-written songs together is Read’s book, a pastiche that shows very little of the edge that Read and his fellow writers brought the subversive Schitt’s Creek. Here, Read has fashioned a sort of instructional guide to feminism, self-destiny, empowerment and chosen identity, worthy topics all but here rendered with the subtlety of a middle school pep rally.
The premise is this: Will Shakespeare (Stark Sands) and his very dissatisfied and angry wife Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe) are debating the Bard’s latest play, Romeo & Juliet. Anne insists on taking a shot at a rewrite, her plan to let Juliet live, take agency of her life and free herself from the orbit of a wild and irresponsible young man and the patriarchy itself.
Anne immediately sets about freeing Juliet (Lorna Courtney) and some pals from Verona, sending them off to the more liberated (and fun) Paris. First stop: A nightclub, where one of those pals, the non-binary May (Justin David Sullivan) literally bumps into one Francois (Philippe Arroyo), a confused, father-dominated young man who only thinks he has eyes for Juliet. The situation sends May into what seems an overblown emotional tailspin, leading to May’s performance of Spears’ “I‘m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” – an initially clever choice that soon feels, like so much else here, burdened with heft.
Will and Anne repeatedly drop in on the doings, sometimes one by one, all the better to set a plot or romance in action behind the back of his or her writing partner who might not quite approve. In this way, we got the magic-wand aging of Juliet and Co. from young teens to a more 21st Century acceptable 20s, and, in a big first-curtain revelation – stop reading here to avoid spoilers, or if you haven’t already figured it out – the return of Romeo (at the review performance, a game and go-for-broke Daniel Maldonado filling in for Ben Jackson Walker), who Will has decided didn’t really die after all.
Also swirling around Paris are Juliet’s nurse Angelique (Melanie La Barrie), who has a secret romantic past with Francois’ stern dad Lance (Paulo Szot, the opera star putting his baritone to some effective and often comic use).
All of this star-crossing plays out on Soutra Gilmour’s flashy, fairly clever set design – much is made of the missing “Romeo” from a large marquee-style sign. Paloma Young’s costume design features the expected mix-and-mash of centuries then and now, stopping short of the eye-popping dazzle of the Six finery. Howard Hudson’s lighting design, Gareth Owen’s sound design and Andrzej Goulding’s video & projection design are all first-rate.
The cast, certainly not without charms, has been directed to pitch their performances to the heights – the balconies, as it were – and the mugging can grate (La Barrie, as the nurse, could dial down the schtick and let the focus fall on her fine singing voice). Wolfe, another terrific vocalist, recites her dialogue with unrelenting archness, and Sullivan, as the nonbinary May, conveys a sweetness that’s too often undercut with melodrama. Only Sands, as Shakespeare, and, especially the very impressive Courtney as the no-longer little girl lost, consistently strike the right balance between silliness and sense.