Broadway Bound production now onstage at Toronto's Princess of Wales
An imaginative and unique new idea about a ‘What-if’ situation involving two of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers
(Updated July 11 for correction of information)
In exiting the Princess of Wales Theatre after seeing an extraordinary ‘& Juliet’, I turned to Marg, my high school friend who accompanied me, and called out to her the Food Basics catchphrase we all know:
There’s flashy pizzazz, lots of glitter, and raucous spectacle which add to the heaping mound of the excitement of this first-class experience of sight and sound in this behemoth of a play within a play musical, but I stripped away all of that to see if there is a story underneath.
Is there a story, a good one at that?
‘& Juliet’ becomes a rollicking, boisterous, uniquely clever panoply of incredible music set against the backdrop of envisioning Juliet did not die at the end of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Instead, we are led through Verona and on to Paris, France, where the young heroine begins her life again first under her parents’ (terrific work of understated proportion by Nicholas Edwards and Veronica Otim) tyrannical rule. That all changes as the story progresses.
‘& Juliet’ is a stunning twenty-first-century imaginative coming-of-age tale where the central character begins to accept life on her own terms and become her own person. Lorna Courtney is marvelous. Her majestic vocal pipes nearly blew the roof off the theatre.
I’m trying not to spoil too much as future audiences must experience this hell of a ride themselves. But here goes:
We are introduced to Shakespeare (a dashing Stark Sands) who wonders whether the ending to ‘R & J’ needs to be re-written. Enter his wife, Anne Hathaway (a bold and sassy Betsy Wolfe) who got a babysitter for their two children while she and her husband engage in the re-writing of the text.
And the task to create is underway. The plot details go back and forth in time where we meet Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker) who laughingly at one point referred to himself as a tight, six-pack muscular guy who really isn’t the man we initially thought he was. We also meet Juliet’s Nurse (an audacious and plucky performance by Melanie LaBarrie) who continues as her lady’s beloved confidante while showcasing and revealing her true innermost thoughts and feelings to the events around her as they all move forward into the next chapter.
Amid this back and forth in time, we meet other characters who become linked with Juliet in her new life: Francois (Philippe Arroyo) a suave debonair gentleman who is set to marry Juliet so that she can begin her life again. Francois’s wise father Lance (Paulo Szot) wants what’s best for his son while harbouring a past that made me laugh out loud once we know what occurred. Juliet’s gender-fluid friend May (Justin David Sullivan) becomes an important modern element of this modern take on the love story and what this emotion truly means for an audience.
Can’t forget the superlatively energetic Company of Players. What struck me so keenly at first was the diversity of individuals of various heights and sizes. This lively energetic and spirited troupe attacked Jennifer Weber’s to die-for choreography with focused strength and supple agility. I haven’t seen break dance movements like this in a very long time. I’m not that huge a fan of rap. Nevertheless, when you take these tunes and score them to incorporate break dance, all I can say is: “Hot damn, clear the floor and let these people strut their stuff” which they do with confident aplomb.
About halfway through the first act, one thing struck me about this Broadway-bound production. It is staged productions like ‘& Juliet’ that will bring young people into the theatre and get them loving the art form so much they will want to learn more. As a retired teacher of English who had taught ‘Romeo & Juliet’ for many years, I would highly recommend teachers to bring classes to see the production after having finished and studied the play. Students will not get many of the ‘in jokes’ throughout until they understand the context in which these one-liners and zingers are delivered.
Scenic designer Soutra Gilmour’s visual look remains stylistically impressive. Upon entering the auditorium during the preshow, the larger-than-life logo is centre staged. Andrzej Goulding’s visual projections on the back wall and side walls contain those earth-coloured tones reminiscent of the Elizabethan era. Goulding then effectively incorporates multi-coloured tones for many of the choral/company numbers. Pay close attention in the second act to ‘The Bois Band’ (you’ll get the joke when you see the show).
Slightly angled stage right is a jukebox with the letter E propped against it. The visual impact of the jukebox at the conclusion of the show remains in my mind. What appears to be an architect’s workstation desktop can be found stage right with the letter O propped against it. Around the stage are other letters you can probably guess that will spell someone’s name from the show.
Paloma Young’s Costume Designs reminded me of a cross between a punk/steampunk clothing style which looked great. Howard Hudson and Gareth Owens Lighting and Sound Designs vividly encapsulate crowd scenes or heart-to-heart conversations between two people.
I gotta hand it to Bill Sherman as Music Supervisor, Orchestrations and Arrangements. Hearing all these Max Martin tunes blew me away and left me speechless. During many of the company numbers, many around me were waving their arms in the air as if we were all attending a concert. It all seemed natural and convincing in the way the songs were introduced in the story. Advice to future audiences: just sit back, watch, listen, hear, and enjoy.
Finally, Luke Sheppard’s inspired direction remained intently focused on two elements he successfully accomplished: to tell a good story and to make sure audiences had a good time.
Sheppard more than succeeded. He lovingly gave back to an adoring Covid weary theatre crowd who just wanted to have one hell of a good time.
I know I did.
Running time: approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes.
‘& Juliet’ runs to August 14 at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West. For tickets, visit mirvish.com or call 1-800-461-3333
Music and Lyrics by Max Martin and Friends. Book by David West Read
Directed by Luke Sheppard
Music Supervisor, Orchestrations & Arrangements: Bill Sherman
Cast: Lorna Courtney, Paulo Szot, Betsy Wolfe, Stark Sands, Justin David Sullivan, Melanie LaBarrie, Ben Jackson Walker, Philippe Arroyo, Brandon Antonio, Michael Ivan Carrier, Nico DeJesus, Nicholas Edwards, Virgil Gadson, Katy Geraghty, Bobby “Pocket” Horner, Joomin Hwang, Alaina Vi Maderal, Daniel J. Maldonado, Joe Moeller, Brittany Nicholas, Veronice Otim, Jasmine Rafael, Matt Raffy, Tiernan Tunnicliffe, Rachel Webb.