Allow Juliet to reintroduce herself. Or rather, let Anne Hathaway do it for her. No, not the Oscar-winning actress known for “The Devil Wears Prada.” The Anne Hathaway I’m referring to is William Shakespeare’s wife — the presumed inspiration behind his most famous love story, “Romeo & Juliet.” In the new musical “& Juliet,” however, Hathaway insists on being more than a muse. Unsatisfied with her husband’s affinity for tragedy, Hathaway steps up as co-auteur of a new version of the age-old story, one in which Juliet never takes a dagger to the heart, but rather, a trip to Paris with her besties. The confetti-laden chaos that ensues in David West Read’s hyper new musical currently running at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre is part-pop music fantasia, part-failed feminist retelling, but all heart.
In tone, “& Juliet” strays further from the Elizabethan haughtiness of most Shakespearean adaptations. Nearly all of the musical’s score is arranged from the biggest hits of prominent songwriter/producer Max Martin, but the script still flirts with the Shakes’ signature stylings: the quadratic love story, for instance. As previously mentioned, Juliet (a flawless Lorna Courtney) ditches the streets of Verona for Paris. Her best friends May (Justin David Sullivan) and April (Betsy Wolfe) join the adventure. Wolfe primarily plays Anne Hathaway, but the new co-scribe’s eagerness compels her to jump into her own remixed story, much to the chagrin of her Bard of a husband (Stark Sands). At a Parisian club, May (who is genderqueer) has a meet-cute with François (Philippe Arroyo), a charming young musician flailing under the pressure of his combatant French father, Lance (Paulo Szot). But suddenly, François’ lips lock with Juliet’s (they’re more friends than lust-struck lovers, but each character sees the other as a means to escape the overbearing demands of their parents). Heartbreakingly, May witnesses Juliet and François kiss, but (in true twentysomething fashion) says nothing.
The queer love story that underbellies “& Juliet” is heaps more interesting and effective at portraying the ache of unrequited love than the timeworn, heteronormative “Romeo & Juliet.” But here, the cherished linguistic beauty of that latter work is abandoned for cheaper thrills. In place of imagery-laden sonnets is David West Read’s lackluster book, which feels like it’s contorting itself to fit the youthful feminist ethos of “& Juliet” and trying to fortify meaning from arbitrary pop lyrics. Plot, puns, even characters’ names are desperate to align themselves with a score of Billboard-certified number-ones. Juliet’s friends fall neatly into a joke about the spring months (“April, May and Jul-y-et”) and François and May’s love story sets up convenient use of NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Read’s musical exposes the vagueness of Martin’s lyrics, reaffirming that most pop is an emotive but ultimately senseless sonic experience.
Under Read’s pen, Juliet remains overly sheltered and meek, even in disobedience. Her central conflict is boy-driven. She refutes the sage advice from adults around her, notably Nurse Angélique, played by Melanie La Barrie (whose voice is as melodic as her British-tinged Trinidadian accent). The saving grace is that Sheppard has cast newcomer Courtney in the titular role. Courtney possesses the pitch-perfect confidence of a Broadway veteran with three times her experience, steadying her knockout voice as she runs up and down the scale. It’s a performance that can unveil startling depths to the shallow tunes of Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Britney Spears peppering the musical’s playlist.
Dancing to Martin’s music outside of a road trip, drag show or sorority party seems slightly inane and choreographer Jennifer Weber’s overactive numbers prove this. In “& Juliet,” ensemblists repeat moves and overindulge in hand choreography. Remarkably, it all still looks exciting flushed under lighting designer Howard Hudson’s bubble gum pinks and Barbie dream house purples, but there is nothing original to the movement which takes inspiration from break dance, jazz and glee-club staples like sashays and ponies. Though, there’s a gilded glam (quills couture?) to Paloma Young’s sparkly costumes which flicker across Soutra Gilmour’s multidimensional set.
What “& Juliet” lacks in foundation, it more than makes up for in sheer fun. The placements of certain songs are jokes in themselves. I refused to look at the set list printed in the show’s program, instead opting to play a game of which hit will come next and what embarrassing adolescent memory do I associate with it? In fact, playing this game revealed the eonic length of Martin’s reign in the genre and an industry he has had an undisputed hold over since the mid-’90s. While the melodies of “& Juliet” are well-known, the musical strikes rare chords as an eccentric and explosive new work that for generations of theatergoers is pure entertainment.
“& Juliet” opened at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.
Review photo: Matthew Murphy.
Creative: Book by David West Read; Music by Max Martin; Lyrics by Max Martin; Musical Director: Dominic Fallacaro; Music orchestrated by Bill Sherman; Music arranged by Bill Sherman; Directed by Luke Sheppard; Choreographed by Jennifer Weber; Scenic Design by Soutra Gilmour; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Howard Hudson; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Video Design by Andrzej Goulding; Projection Design by Andrzej Goulding; Hair and Wig Design by J. Jared Janas; Make-Up Design by J. Jared Janas.
Produced by Max Martin, Timothy Headington, Theresa Steele Page, Jenny Petersson and Martin Dodd.
Cast: Philippe Arroyo, Lorna Courtney, Melanie La Barrie, Stark Sands, Justin David Sullivan, Paulo Szot, Ben Jackson Walker, Betsy Wolfe, Brandon Antonio, Michael Iván Carrier, Nico DeJesus, Nicholas Edwards, Virgil Gadson, Bobby “Pocket” Horner, Joomin Hwang, Megan Kane, Alaina Vi Maderal, Daniel J. Maldonado, Joe Moeller, Brittany Nicholas, Veronica Otim, Jasmine Rafael, Matt Raffy, Tiernan Tunnicliffe and Rachel Webb.