They don’t even bother to hide the jukebox. It’s right there, out in the open, before the show starts: a chrome Cyclops glaring at you from the stage of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, of all places.
Are you challenging me, “& Juliet”?
I did everything a critic can do to eradicate the musical jukebox. I called it a cockroach, a straitjacket, a leech, a dead fish. I argued that with a few exceptions, it is a form that is unsatisfactory neither as music nor as theater, let alone the combination. I have proudly stood, even among my colleagues, as a denier of everything “& Juliet” generally means.
So shoot me: I liked it. It was so wrong; it was so good.
This even though ‘& Juliet’, which opened on Broadway on Thursday after establishing itself as a hit in London, carries the faint smell of carpeting and brand extension that makes other examples of the genre – ‘Motown : The Musical”, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and the inexcusable “Escape to Margaritaville” – so daunting. The show’s sole raison d’etre, after all, is to tap into the catalog of Max Martin, the Swedish hitmaker behind Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and 24 other Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles since 1998. .
Whether the songs are good to start with – chunky, catchy, belting, danceable – is neither here nor there; they usually are, on shows like this, otherwise there would be no audience to pander to. The way “& Juliet” places them in unlikely contexts, aiming for laughs that are little more than Pavlovian reactions to anticipated familiarity, also hits the mark.
What saves “&Juliet” from being a lowest-common-denominator corporate byproduct is something else, something I never expected: the spirit.
The spirit operates on multiple levels in director Luke Sheppard’s super poppy production, including hilarious hybrid Elizabethan costumes (by Paloma Young) that feature a snapping turtle-sized cod, cotton candy lighting (by Howard Hudson) and playful settings (by Soutra Gilmour) situating the story in a century that somehow mixes the 16th century and ours.
But that’s just the surface; more important are some fundamental choices about what a jukebox can and should be. On the one hand, “& Juliet” is not – like “Jersey Boys” and “The Cher Show” – a biomusical, chronicling the ups and downs of artists, no matter how faked or outright faked. With Martin having no taste for the spotlight, he instead opts for an original story, if a reboot of the original “Romeo and Juliet” can be considered. Turning this story into a fable — much like “Head Over Heels,” 2018’s game of Go-Go — cleverly relieves him of the pressure of reality.
But the book, by David West Read, aims higher than that. Because so many of Martin’s biggest songs featured singers like Perry, Britney Spears, Pink, and Ariana Grande — Taylor Swift’s are mysteriously absent from the show — the choice to focus on a young woman made sense. Yet Juliet, as Shakespeare wrote, comes with some baggage, including the fact that by the sixth line of the prologue she is dead.
Undoing this fate has become the main and backbone of the musical. In Read’s story, Juliet (Lorna Courtney in a stunning performance) doesn’t die but wakes up rather confused and a bit emo after Romeo’s suicide. Cue “…Baby One More Time”, which she interprets, still in her burial dress but also helmet and walkman, in front of her lover’s sarcophagus.
It’s as dark as “& Juliet” gets — not very — because, as Romeo’s erasure from its title suggests, this girl is shining bright. Here, the show enters meta-territory, featuring Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, as the force behind the overhaul. “I mean, what do I know,” Anne (Betsy Wolfe) says slyly to cocky Will (Stark Sands). “Maybe she’s not killing herself just because he killed himself?”
When Will insists (jokingly) that he writes his plays entirely on his own, Anne simply grabs the quill until he agrees to share authorship. To increase the meta ante, they also fit into the tale. “& Juliet” then proceeds to deal with the Shakespearean marital problems through the new story of Juliet, switching between Anne’s feminist elevation and Will’s squirrel-like, writerly (and perhaps patriarchal) need for complicate it.
So when the scene shifts to Paris, where Anne offers Juliette a new boy to enjoy, that boy – Francois du Bois (Philippe Arroyo) – turns out to have eyes for someone else, whom Will succeeded to throw in its path. The plot now weaves through several typical Shakespearean tropes, including comedic shifts, lovers reunited (Paulo Szot and Melanie La Barrie) and the return of another character (I won’t spoil that, but you probably can). guess) from the grave.
Songs that exemplify these developments — “Oops! …I Did It Again” when Juliet agrees to marry Francois, “Blow” for a grand Parisian ball – are generally quite appropriate, although with nearly 30 of them pressed into the show’s 150 minutes, they end up creating an auditory rut. (Gareth Owen’s sound design doesn’t help, with its arena-style reverb in a relatively small theater.) And some taste like reverse-engineered, like when Juliet’s non-binary best friend May gets the “I am Not a girl, not yet a woman.
Nonetheless, May (Justin David Sullivan) is a typically clever modern gloss on Shakespeare — a playwright, as Anne points out, who is “fundamentally synonymous with gender bending.” And though three of the couples, freed by Juliette’s release, achieve surprisingly normative happy endings, the girl herself ends the show with no commitment, still trying to “own her choices,” seemingly making none of them. .
Most of the comedy stems from similar tensions; although “& Juliet” is pleasant and its authorship is entirely male, its feminist criticism is quite real, alternately winking at Shakespeare’s assumptions and ours. At one point, Anne summarily ages Juliette by about a decade because she’s ‘not going clubbing with a 13-year-old’ – nor (it’s not said) letting a 13-year-old marry .
Indeed, it is Anne who provides most of the spirit, not only verbal but philosophical. And it’s Wolfe’s performance – capped off by a jaw-dropping rendition of Celine Dion’s hit “That’s the Way It Is” – that gives the show its heart, an organ too often unheard of in entirely ear-focused musicals.
I could have used a little more brains, though; “& Juliet” sometimes seems suspicious of its own intelligence, like a nerd invited to the cool kids’ party, to get drunk and puke in the pool.
Overcompensation — of them confetti explosions? — is useless. Jukebox musicals may still be background eaters, but, as “& Juliet” proves, sometimes there are little treasures to be found in the dark. And as long as they keep coming anyway, I have to admit (citing Martin’s success for those theater reviews the Backstreet Boys) that I want it that way.
At the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Manhattan; andjulietbroadway.com. Duration: 2h30.
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