In fair Verona, William Shakespeare laid the scene. Two young lovers, each from warring families, meet and profess mutual devotion for one another. Through miscommunication and poor timing, each end their broken-hearted lives with suicide.
For centuries, Romeo and Juliet was performed, lauded, and ultimately canonized by audiences and scholars alike. The story, it seemed, was perfect. Who would dare question the poetic pen of the bard?
Fortunately, the creative team behind the new Broadway musical, & Juliet (★★★★☆) have — and their audacity is sure to win the hearts of New York audiences. Even those who hold jukebox musicals in contempt will likely find themselves smitten with this Renaissance romp. Emmy-winning writer David West Read has created an inspired musical with compassion, humor, and generous doses of social commentary that reflect a progressive 21st century.
Upon hearing the ending to husband William’s (Stark Sands) play before its world premiere, Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe) begs him to change it. Instead of the leading lady dying at the end, Anne suggests that Juliet (Lorna Courtney) would instead move on, gain agency of herself and her life choices and forge a different path with new friends and experiences.
When Juliet’s nonbinary best friend May (Justin David Sullivan) is introduced, Shakespeare questions their name: “Isn’t May more of a girl’s name?” Anne quickly puts him in his place. “Do you really think it’s up to you to question May’s gender or sexuality, or do you think maybe May is whoever May is, and it’s really none of your business?”
Sullivan, who is making their Broadway debut, is endearing as a beautiful soul yearning for love. Sullivan wraps their solo, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” in warmth and tenderness, providing one of show’s more poignant moments.
Female empowerment is also prominent throughout this tuner. Whether Juliet is rebelling against her Capulet family and proving through song that she is “Stronger”, or Anne is outwitting her playwright husband, Read has made each of these ladies the architects of their own destinies.
Even Juliet’s nurse, Angélique (Melanie La Barrie) breaks away from a usual dowdy, bystander role that offers little social mobility. It would reveal too much of the fun to elaborate, but you’ll never hear Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” quite the same way again.
Actually, you’ll hear all of these songs in a completely fresh manner, thanks to Bill Sherman’s orchestrations and arrangements of Max Martin’s music. Martin’s name may not be instantly recognizable, but the Swedish pop songwriter and producer has written catchy earworms and has worked with the biggest names in the music industry.
The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Bon Jovi, Celine Dion, Pink, NSYNC and Justin Timberlake are just a handful of artists whose songs have been cleverly woven into this joyous confection. The tunes have become ingrained in our pop-cultural psyche on their own, but here, they blend effortlessly into the story. It doesn’t hurt that they are all sung by an immensely gifted cast.
Courtney is a commanding actor with strong, clear and confident vocals. From the first few notes of “…Baby One More Time”, audiences will be heartstruck for the heroine. Broadway veteran Wolfe also delivers the goods, particularly in a rousing rendition of “That’s the Way It Is.” La Barrie lends another sweet moment in the show with the encouraging anthem, “Fuckin’ Perfect.”
Jennifer Weber’s athletic and energetic choreography complements the show’s electric music with slick motion that rivals some of the best music videos. Weber herself is balancing quite a few moves this theater season. In addition to & Juliet, she has also choreographed KPOP, which opens on Broadway early next week.
Paloma Young’s inventive costumes are a smart combination of 14th-century and contemporary attire that cleverly bend the rules of convention. At times, Howard Hudson’s lighting and Andrzej Goulding’s video and projection designs overstimulate the senses. But in this “Larger than Life” production, there is little room for subtlety.
Luke Sheppard helms the Broadway production, just as he did in Manchester, England, where the show premiered in 2019. It later moved to the West End where it was nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards. It took home three. It’s early in the season to make Tony predictions, but it won’t be surprising if voters lavish praise on this crowd-pleasing valentine.
Make no mistake: & Juliet will not challenge the intellect. But its sincere efforts to promote love, acceptance, and a celebration of life may just challenge, and change, some hearts.
& Juliet is currently running at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St. in New York. Tickets are $79 to $312. Call 1-833-274-8497 or visit www.andjulietbroadway.com.
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