The Broadway Theatre Review: & Juliet
Pop-pleasing the crowds with ease, & Juliet strides onto the Broadway stage with buoyant energy and a zest for a teenage dream life. Marvelously fun and enthusiastically appealing, the show delivers with a smart smirk inside a ridiculously fun pretense. And it couldn’t be any better if you tried. As directed wisely and swiftly by Luke Sheppard (West End’s In the Heights; The Secret Life of Adrian Mole). & Juliet sings and roars “Larger Than Life“. It shows the “meaning of being lonely” in a heavily silly and ironic manner, most pleasurably made up of, literally, dozens and dozens of pop songs by the super-producer Max Martin weaved together magically. They swirl out at you, at high volume and speed, with equally high energy by a brilliant cast of highly talented singers and dancers, digging in hard to the restructuring of the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. And in turn, unpacking the perfect gift.
The fun is all there, live and electric, probably due in a great way to the slick storytelling of “Schitt’s Creek” writer, David West Read (The Performers) coupled with the memorable pop 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” and that couldn’t be more true in this jukebox musical. Presenting a moment when William Shakespeare, played wry and charmingly by Stark Sands (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Kinky Boots), is living his best life, very proud of the play he has written. That is until he runs headfirst into his disgruntled rebellious wife, Anne Hathaway, lovingly portrayed with spark and style by the understudy Tiernan Tunnicliffe (NY City Center’s Bat Out of Hell), who truly believes he has gotten it all wrong. Sadly I missed out on seeing the wonderful Betsy Wolfe (Broadway’s Falsettos) in the role that I hear she excels in, but boy, did Tunnicliffe do justice to the part, living it large and magnificently with every fiber of her being. I have no complaints. The dynamo pairing is stupendously silly, but once you give in to these actors, and you really do have no choice, these two certainly know how to “Show Me Love… and what it’s all about.“
Anne believes that Juliet, wonderfully embodied by the fantastically talented Lorna Courtney (Broadway’s West Side Story), should be allowed to survive her moment in the crypt, and live out her newly empowered life singing pop songs on a Paris road trip for love with her posse of pals. Courtney is an absolute triumph, breathing strong life into the part that she originated in the Toronto pre-Broadway run of this production. 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 superficially silly.
Naturally, dancing along 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 adorable, albeit wacky and fun. Especially when Shakespeare resurrects the deliciously appealing Romeo, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Jackson Walker (Paramount +’s “Honor Society“) to mess up and get in the way of Juliet’s desire for true love. “It’s super dope!” he says as he late arrives at almost the end of Act One, and we can’t dispute that exclamation point (side note: I am told by one of my supreme theatre junkie buddies that Romeo’s understudy, Brandon Antonio, who plays Richard normally, rocks undeniably strong in the part when needed- and also has the best legs on that stage). Walker starts out strong, and just gets better and better as he develops into something more than just a mere member of the fan favorite, “De Bois Band“. Giving an adorably honest edge to the young man. And those bois are back, alright, to screams of excitement from “Everybody“.
It should not come to anyone’s surprise that Shakespeare, overwhelmed by Anne’s new path, would find a way to throw in a new twist on this new version. I mean, “What’s wrong with being confident?” and it shows. Somewhere on that glittering 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 by actually connecting the assortment of pop songs to actual emotional developments within the ridiculous plot in a way that astounds. Weber’s choreography is completely high energy, blending classic motifs with modern twists and moves, which is completely fun, but not overly complicated nor artistically elevating, much like the set, with video and projections by Andrezej Goulding (St Ann’s People, Places and Things) that deliver the piece forward joyfully. I mean, Paris could have been a bit more grand, rather than miniaturized, but overall, the spectacle finds fun and pleasure at every turn on the stage, never letting us forget that “this place is about to blow.”
Visually, we are never really given a moment to disengage, not that we would want to. The costumes, designed beautifully by Paloma Young (Broadway’s Bandstand) only enhance the pleasure for all those young audience members that scream with delight over each song, much like the time I went to see Six in the West End and on Broadway. Six is a brilliantly well-written and completely smart original piece of musical theatre, and even though & Juliet doesn’t quite reach that high mark of Wicked-ly wise, you can’t help but gulp down the music and the musical as if you were utterly parched for some good simple jukebox pleasure.
The amusing twists and turns of & Juliet‘s plot are constantly elevated up higher than they really should be with a solid never-ending selection of Martin’s well-known pop tracks, including Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” and “Oops!… I Did It Again“, as well as Ariana Grande’s “Break Free“, “Problem“, and Kesha’s “Blow“. Martin has had more number one hits than any other artist this century. “He’s basically the Shakespeare of pop music” we are told by Playbill. And every one of these celebrated songs is meticulously well-suited for the show, performed by an impressively talented cast determined to deliver fun and joy at every turn. Especially when the Nurse, played hilariously well by Melanie La Barrie (West End’s Mary Poppins) and Lance, charmingly played by Paulo Szot (LCT’s South Pacific), 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. It really did bring down the house.
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“ Played touchingly by the tender and talented Justin David Sullivan, the non-binary best friend of Juliet, May, sings this song to François, played lovingly by Philippe Arroyo. (York Theatre’s Penelope), as they equally struggle with their gender and sexual identity in the most touching kind of ways. It really is a revelation, having a non-binary character reveling in a romantic plot line that isn’t drenched in tragedy, but one of love and engagement. The musical, overall, is wonderfully and undeniably queer, racially and body diverse, with a cast and some plot lines that celebrate non-conformity and acceptance. & Juliet gives the experience plenty of unpacking, opening up a space for all to see and maybe understand gender outside of the binary, honorably gifting us with a lead character beautifully portrayed by a strong genderqueer actor who fully embraces the role on all levels.
With a flick of that feather pen, & Juliet, which opened on November 17, 2022, at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, delivers the pop fantastic goods with abundance, easily being the best jukebox musical in a long long time. 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 (Miriam-Teak Lee, Cassidy Janson, and David Bedella) winning Oliviers for their performances. I enjoyed it when I saw it there, but I had no idea that I would be so excitedly saying “hit me, baby, one more time” when it finally made its way to Broadway. The show has only gotten tighter and smarter with the transfer, finding an emotional heart and connection that I didn’t quite feel at that West End theatre. Who knows. Maybe I was feeling off after just seeing the new West End revival of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, aka the completely redesigned Playhouse Theatre, starring Eddie Redmayne and the impossibly good Jessie Buckley (NT’s Romeo and Juliet). A pretty impossible act to follow.
Yet, Broadway’s & Juliet 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. We are reminded that Romeo and Juliet only knew each other for four days, and she was only 13 years old at the time. Crazy when pointed out this way in this modern context, but it shows a wise realignment that registers. And thankfully Anne fixes one of those problems quickly, by rewriting her age up to the early 20s. A solidly good edit.
The show also contains a bevy of Shakespearean jokes, phrases, and historical references that add some knowledgable weight to the festivities, and although I first arrived at the doors of this show having a somewhat hard time taking it in as a seriously sharp piece of musical theatre writing and producing, the musical, like Six, truly rises up into the stars with so much good grace, energy, talent, 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. It comes pretty close to being “Fuckin’ Perfect“, the most fun in a Broadway theater right now, and by far the best jukebox musical Broadway has seen in a while. “And that’s the way it is.”