& Juliet, the latest jukebox musical, is a delightful and witty reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet told from a revisionist and feminist point of view. The show is wrapped around the song catalog of Max Martin, the Swedish songwriter and record producer who may just be the third most successful practitioner of all time with 25 Hot 100 number-one song hits since 1998, just behind Paul McCartney and John Lennon. These were written with or for such singers as Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Pink, Ellie Goulding, Backstreet Boys and Justin Timberlake. And yes, there is a jukebox on stage in the opening scene in case you didn’t get the in-joke.
The cast is a combination of New York stage favorites (Stark Sands, Kinky Boots, and Betsy Wolfe, Waitress, Falsettos and The Mystery of Edwin Drood), new faces (Lorna Courtney, Ben Jackson Walker, Justin David Sullivan) and older veterans (opera baritone Paolo Szot and London stage star Melanie La Barrie making her Broadway debut.) The clever book is by writer David West Read previously seen in New York with The Performers and The Dream of the Burning Boy as well as the long running television series Schitt’s Creek. The show seems to have been influenced by Something Rotten (parody of Elizabethan times), Six (its updated 16th century costumes by Paloma Young), Head Over Heels (reboot of a classic tale wedded to a pop-rock score) and Moulin Rouge (the over-the-top staging by director Luke Sheppard and choreographer Jennifer Weber) – but is actually more fun than all of those shows. At times it resembles Saturday Night Live skits but knows enough to keep them short and not let any of them go on too long before introducing the next complication.
The plot begins with Anne Hathaway, Will Shakespeare’s wife, who travels up to London to attend the first rehearsal of her husband’s new play to be called Romeo and Juliet. However, Anne objects to Juliet killing herself and we proceed to see her version which will support female empowerment. When Juliet discovers at Romeo’s funeral that he had many other girlfriends and her parents decide to send her to a convent for disobeying them, she resolves to run away and have a life of her own. Her nurse Angélique agrees to accompany her as well as her non-binary friend May. Anne enters the story as her confidante April (April, May and Ju-liet) at which point Shakespeare becomes the carriage driver who takes them to Paris. They immediately enter the high life by crashing a party in a castle for the shy François whose father Lance wants him to find a wife or vows he will have to join the army. Anne adds ten years to Juliet’s age as she points out she is not going partying with a 13 year old.
Juliet and François are attracted to each other and it turns out that Lance and Angélique were an item back when she worked for his family before moving to Verona and joining the Capulets. The non-binary May meets François and they immediately feel sexual attraction for each other. When Juliet’s parents arrive to take her to a convent, she announces that she and François are engaged to avoid the convent for her and the army for him. Annoyed at his wife’s meddling with his story, Shakespeare decides to bring back Romeo who will also have awoken after drinking his sleeping potion and with Romeo back in the story, and the widower Lance wooing Angélique, it all becomes quite farcical and complicated.
Sheppard who also directed the London production gets a great deal of mileage out of his talented actors who never let up for a moment or allow the show to drag. Bill Sherman has the job of music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements and generally turning the pop song standards into a Broadway score. American choreographer Weber, also responsible for the new musical KPOP, has created the energetic and spirited dances for both the London and New York productions.
The score is made up of all well-known songs, mainly used in new ways. They dovetail beautifully with the plot and the character’s problems at all occasions: for example, Anne Hathaway’s “I Want It That Way” when she convinces Will to let her have a new ending to R&J, Juliet’s “Baby One More Time” when she decides not to kill herself after finding Romeo dead, non-binary May’s introduction in “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” Juliet’s “Oops!… I Did it Again” when she finds she is engaged to François after marrying Romeo only four-five days before, May and François’ “I Kissed a Girl” when they first become involved with each other, and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” as the finale for Shakespeare, Anne and company. Read’s dialogue has a nice amount of iconic quotes from Shakespeare, ones that will be familiar to most theatergoers, all used tongue in cheek.
The high-powered cast, 15 of the 25 company members making their Broadway debuts, throw themselves into their roles like their lives depended on it. Betsy Wolfe is a feisty and gutsy Anne Hathaway, a modern woman in Elizabethan dress. Having given in to her, Stark Sands’ Will Shakespeare can only duel with words and create new complications. In her first starring role as Juliet, Lorna Courtney is bigger than life as the conflicted heroine who is going be her own woman, in the sort of performance which is star-making. As the extremely promiscuous Romeo, Ben Jackson Walker is over-confident and brash in the manner of male chauvinists throughout history.
Philippe Arroyo is sensitive and conflicted as François who does not understand his own feelings. Subbing for the usual Justin David Sullivan at the performance under review, Michael Iván Carrier brings a modern sensibility as well as a reminder that in Shakespeare’s time the women’s roles were played by men. Tony Award-winner Paolo Szot (Lincoln Center’s South Pacific) brings his powerful baritone to his songs while wearing some very unflattering costumes. The only actor retained from the London production, Melanie La Barrie, charming as Juliet’s wise and experienced nurse Angélique, steals every scene she is in.
The deft production team is a combination of British and American designers most of whom worked on the London production. Soutra Gilmour’s sets along with video and projection designer Andrzej Goulding whisk us from London to Verona to Paris with clever updating as well as Elizabethan tropes. Young’s costumes are a combination of 16th century silhouettes and 20th century accessories. Howard Hudson’s lighting and Gareth Owen’s sound design rival rock concerts without being too over the top. The wig and hair design by J. Jared Janas is also an amalgam of old and new.
While you might not have expected a juke box musical revision of the ending to Romeo and Juliet to work, & Juliet is a refreshingly clever and entertaining show offering eye-filling scenes and ear-catching songs. The cast seems to be having a ball and you will too. Songwriter Max Martin might just become a household name after over 45 years in the business.
& Juliet (open run)
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.andjulietbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission