By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 23, 2022: & Juliet, a raucous jukebox musical that even has a jukebox as a prominent stage property, belongs as well to a genre with a much longer tradition, burlesque. No, not the modern burlesque of dirty jokes, baggy pants comedians, and bump and grind strippers, but the 18th– and 19th-century form—with 17th-century roots—from which that later genre was born. These were full-scale, often spectacular (thus the alternate name of “extravaganzas”), musical take-offs of theatrical genres or famous plays, usually with parody titles. In 1897, for example, you could laugh heartily at The Geezer, a spoof of the recent comic opera The Geisha.
Continuing this proud lineage, & Juliet spoofs (need I name it?) Shakespeare’s tragedy of young love by introducing the Bard himself (Stark Sands) and his wife, Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe), whose movie star name, naturally, detonates the expected jokes. In fact, such corny ripostes, like those in burlesque, old and newer, are the bread and butter of David West Read’s (“Schitt’s Creek”) yock-riddled book, many based on Shakespeare’s lines that have become familiar catchphrases, which Shakespeare is only too happy to keep reminding us.
Given the near universal familiarity of Shakespeare’s play, the plot is premised on a big what if—what if Juliet (Lorna Courtney) doesn’t die in the tomb scene? Later, it even asks, I kid you not, what if—after Juliet has moved on to other romantic adventures, in Paris, no less—Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker) comes back to life, monkey-wrenching things further? Shakespeare and Anne, themselves sometimes acting in the story, argue about her vision of the play, which is then enacted, the point being to bring things to where Juliet makes a coming-of-age decision to take charge of her life with confidence.
During the post-Romeo and Juliet situations, other romantic complications evolve, such as that of Juliet’s fast-speaking nurse, Angelique (Melanie La Barrie), with the dashing Lance DuBois (lots of joking about that last name’s pronunciation), and that of Juliet’s non-binary friend May (Michael Ivan Currier, understudying for Justin David Sullivan) with Lance’s nerdy son Francois (Philippe Arroyo), after the latter already has committed to marrying Juliet. And, of course, there’s the need to somehow dispense with the needs of the back-from-the-dead Romeo.
This is just the kind of silly nonsense that packed them in during the 19th century, and it’s been doing the same ever since the show originated in Manchester, England, in 2019, moved to London’s West End soon after, and returned there in 2021 after the initial Covid pandemic. It won a shelf of British awards, sailed across the ocean to open in Toronto this year, and arrived recently at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway. Of course, more than the burlesque premise, what’s driving the fans to see it is the bouncy score, most of it (there’s a rider saying “and friends”) by the Swedish, one-man, pop-song hit factory, Max Martin, who, as his Playbill bio exclaims, “is second only to Paul McCartney and John Lennon with number one U.S. singles.”
However, given the niche nature of modern pop, if you’re over a certain age—in other words, if your listening stopped with Bennett, Sinatra, and Streisand—it’s highly possible you may not be familiar with most of the hits that have been cleverly interpolated into the convoluted plot of & Juliet. On the other hand, older fans of TV’s “The Voice” or “American Idol” may have a leg up on their fellow seniors.
The show employs songs made famous by big names from the 90s through today, like Backstreet Boys (“I Like it That Way,” “As Long as You Love Me,” and others), Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”, “Roar,” etc.), Britney Spears (“Baby One More Time,” “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”), Demi Lovato (“Confident”), Bon Jovi (“It’s My Life”), Pink (“Fuckin’ Perfect”), Céline Dion (“That’s the Way It Is”), and on and on. Only one original song, “One More Try,” is heard.
Still, if, unlike the hundreds of teenagers present when I attended (mainly girls who seemed to know the next song as soon as a single bar was played), you don’t know this music, you may not find it as ingratiatingly earwormy as the sounds of another, somewhat older Swedish music phenomenon, ABBA. Much of it is loud, big-voiced, rhythmically dance- or waving arms-oriented, with quiet ballads barely present. Much of Jennifer Weber’s choreography, perfectly executed by a chorus of dynamic singer-dancers, is upgraded variations on the kinds of acrobatic, robotic, break dancing you often see on Tik Tok videos or in street performances. It uses the body to express joyful feelings through difficult rhythmic combinations, but rarely attempts to express narrative ideas or emotional relationships.
Luke Sheppard’s direction is lively, fast-paced, and colorful, abetted by Soutra Gilmour’s complex scenic background of multiple units flying in, sliding on, popping up, or circling around, with imaginatively complex lighting by Howard Hudson, and remarkable video and projection designs by Andrzej Goulding. The eye-popping vision of a tilted, revolving carousel in an amusement park is only one of many images that reveal how much can be done with the magic of modern projections. And Paloma Young’s costumes, a fabulous blend of contemporary hipster and Renaissance flair—notice the silver boy band duds, for example—make numerous striking visual statements. For instance, regardless of your orientation, you won’t fail to notice Lance’s swollen codpiece, which could probably double as a jai alai cesta.
& Juliet is a visual and musical fest whose technical expertise deserves appreciation, even if you sometimes find it banal, monotonous, and unfunny. The cast is extremely adept at making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (no, Shakespeare didn’t say that), with Queens girl Lorna Courtney (West Side Story)giving a star-making performance as Juliet. An exceptional dancer and awesome singer, she has enough energy to light up the Sondheim even if the lights go out. As Anne, Broadway veteran Betsy Wolfe (Waitress, Falsettos) gets to show her chops as never before, bringing comic skills to her formidable musical ones, while Stark Sands (Kinky Boots) does likewise.
Paolo Szot (South Pacific), highly regarded as an opera star, shows terrific comedy skills in the role of Lance, even at the cost of looking silly, while tall, slim Ben Jackson Walker makes an impressive Broadway debut as a rock star-like Romeo. Melanie La Barrie has fun and is funny as Angelique, and the rest of the cast does well at whatever they’re asked to do.
I didn’t love & Juliet. You might say I liked it well enough, if only because of its production values and the enthusiasm it stimulated in theatregoers who might not otherwise have gone to see a Broadway show. There’s definitely an audience for this burlesque, but I’ll stick with Romeo and Juliet, where both lovers die (and stay that way).
Stephen Sondheim Theatre
124 W. 43rd Street, NYC
Photography: Mathew Murphy