The In-Person West End Theatre Experience: & Juliet and its arrival in Toronto and NYC
“Oh baby, baby, I shouldn’t have let you go.” Cause it’s been a while. I will admit it. And I should have written about seeing & Juliet months and months ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Or get around to it. I didn’t really feel the need, or should I say, the requirement of duty. You see, I bought this ticket when I was in London the last time, with the intention of writing about it, but spending the money on a ticket also takes away that urgency and obligation. There is no one in the press department thinking about me, my review, or the fact that they had given me a comp. For that reason, my obligation has been erased, and although I usually still write a review, because, well, to be honest, I just like writing about theatre. But for some reason, & Juliet didn’t really spark that desire or excitement, like the West End’s revival of Cabaret did. It’s not a bad show. Not at all. It’s quite the entertaining night out, but it didn’t take me over either like the other shows I saw on that trip.
Why do you ask? Well, the show, as directed with a smirk by Luke Sheppard (Hope Mill Theatre’s Spring Awakening) with a story by David West Read (The Performers, “Schitt’s Creek“), is heavily silly and ironic, made up of, literally, dozens and dozens of pop songs by the super-producer Max Martin. They swirl out at you, at high volume with equally high energy by a cast of highly talented singers, digging in hard to the restructuring of the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The fun is probably due in a great way to the slick storytelling by “Schitt’s Creek” writer, David West Read (The Performers) coupled with the strong pop-song choreography by Jennifer Weber (Public’s Teenage Dick) that just never stops giving and giving. “Oh baby, baby, [they’ve] got me feeling so right” in this jukebox musical, presenting a moment when William Shakespeare, played wry and pompous by Oliver Tompsett (Adelphi’s Kinky Boots), living his best life, very proud of the play he has written, runs headfirst into his disgruntled rebellious wife, Anne Hathaway, dutifully portrayed with spark and style by Cassidy Janson (Coliseum’s Chess), who truly believes he has gotten it all wrong. The dynamo pairing is silly, but once you give in to these two, those two certainly know how to “Show Me Love… and what it’s all about.“
Anne believes that Juliet, wonderfully embodied by the fantastically talented Miriam-Teak Lee (London’s Hamilton), should be allowed to survive her moment in the crypt, and live out her newly empowered life singing pop songs on a road trip for love with her posse of pals. It’s a hoot of an adventure, and we are game to join in with the ride, even if it borders a bit on the superficial. Naturally, to the immensely fun soundtrack of Tudor-nodding arrangements, thanks to music supervisor, orchestrator, and arranger Bill Sherman (Broadway’s In The Heights) and the musical director, Dominic Fallacaro (2016’s “Shortwave“), the journey is totally silly albeit wacky fun, especially when Shakespeare resurrects the ridiculously fun and delicious Romeo, wonderfully portrayed by Jordan Luke Gage (Brixton Clubhouse’s Taboo) to mess up and get in the way of Juliet’s desire for true love. “It’s super dope!” he says, and we can’t dispute with that.
I hope you all don’t think I’m giving anything away, but it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Shakespeare would find a way to throw a new twist on Anne’s version. I mean, “What’s wrong with being confident?” and it shows that somewhere on that overly busy set designed by Soutra Gilmour (NT’s My Brilliant Friend), with eye-popping lighting by Howard Hudson (Regent’s Park Open Air’s On The Town), and a big sound design by Gareth Own (Broadway/West End’s Come From Away), the musical surprises us all by actually connecting the assortment of pop songs to actual emotional developments within the ridiculous plot. It finds fun and pleasure at every turn on the stage, never letting us forget that “this place is about to blow.” The costumes by Paloma Young (Broadway’s Bandstand) only enhance the pleasure for all those young audience kids that surrounded me, much like the time I went to see Six in the West End. Six is brilliantly well written and completely smart, and even though & Juliet doesn’t come close to that high mark of wickedly wise, they gulped down the music and the musical like they were utterly parched for some good simple pleasure, even if it was less than mind-blowing.
The amusing twists and turns of & Juliet‘s ridiculous plot are constantly elevated up higher than it really should be with a solid never-ending selection of Martin’s well-known pop tracks, including Britney Spears’…Baby One More Time and Oops!… I Did It Again, as well as Ariana Grande’s Break Free, Problem, and Kesha’s Blow. Every one of these celebrated songs are meticulously well performed by an earnest cast determined to deliver fun and joy at every turn. Especially when the Nurse (Melanie La Barrie) and Lance (David Bedella) bring fire and fun to Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, as well as that moment when Shakespeare and Anne wonderfully use I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys to debate the ending of the play. Another is when Juliet brings down the house with Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone when Romeo miraculously returns from the dead. Also on hand is the poignant and touching rendition of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman by a character that “feels like I’m caught in the middle“, struggling with gender and identity in a most touching kind of way.
It truly is a whole heap of fun and pleasure, unpacking a feminist perspective that tries its best to be both sweet and sincere. It showcased female and queer characters that are well-meaning and hilarious, and although the show itself is somewhat hard to take as a seriously sharp piece of musical theatre writing and producing, like Six, the musical truly does with so much more grace and cleverness, the show never comes close to failing in the entertainment department, especially every time the cast is given the chance to fly high with the music and dance portions.
The show opened to critical acclaim in London’s West End in 2019, and was subsequently nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards in 2020, including Best New Musical, with three of its performers, Lee, Janson, and David Bedella (Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy) who plays Lance, winning Oliviers for their performances. Keala Settle (Broadway’s Waitress), who we all know so well for performing “This Is Me” in the Hugh Jackman film, “The Greatest Showman“, made her West End debut at the end of March this year at the Shaftesbury Theatre. One can only hope she is just warming herself up for a return to the Broadway stage.
Currently, the show has just opened up at Toronto’s Prince of Wales Theatre, wowing the audience with the same brand of high pop fun and frivolity. Playing from the end of June until August 14th, 2022, that tiger will Roar like no other, with a cast made up of seasoned pros, such as Tony Award Winner, Paulo Szot (Broadway’s South Pacific), Betsy Wolfe (Broadway’s Falsettos), Stark Sands (Broadway’s Kinky Boots), Justin David Sullivan, Melanie La Barrie, Ben Jackson Walker, Philippe Arroyo, and introducing Lorna Courtney as their pop singing princess, Juliet. The production that is now playing its long-awaited pre-Broadway engagement here in Toronto will transfer directly to Broadway, with previews of & Juliet beginning October 28, 2022 ahead of a November 17, 2022 opening at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre (124 West 43rd St.). The eye of that tiger will pop-please the Six and Wicked crowds with ease. That, I am sure. So “hit me baby one more time” & Juliet. I’d gladly embrace it.
& Juliet had its World Premiere in September 2019 at the Manchester Opera House in England, before moving to London’s West End. It began performances in November 2019 at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, where it continues to play to sold-out houses. In addition to the UK Production and the pre-Broadway Toronto production, a production of & Juliet will premiere in Australia in February 2023 at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.