It’s perhaps only appropriate that “&Juliet,” the thoroughly enchanting new “jukebox musical” now at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, ends with an audience singalong to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the ultra-catchy Oscar-nominated theme from the 2016 movie “Trolls.”
Why? Because you will have been feeling a lot of feelings over the previous 2 ½ hours. You’ll be feeling sympathy for almost all the characters, most notably our titular heroine (superbly played by the strong-voiced Lorna Courtney). You’ll also be feeling grateful for the remarkable talents of everyone on stage, including an incredibly precise and athletic corps of a dozen dancers executing Jennifer Weber’s exuberant choreography.
Above all, though, you’ll be feeling awestruck that one man you’ve probably never heard of, Max Martin, has been responsible (in part) for the cavalcade of pop hits that have been crammed in your ear for the past four decades, from Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” And, oh yeah, you will have been feeling good – a bit of a rarity on Broadway these days.
Much of the credit for that euphoria goes both to director Luke Shepherd, who moves the tale along with perfect pacing, and book writer David West Read (of “Schitt’s Creek” fame), who has crafted a remarkably clever libretto. In short, on the opening night of the original “Romeo & Juliet,” the witty, smart and underappreciated Anne Hathaway (a sublime Betsy Wolfe) has convinced her egotistical husband, one William Shakespeare (Stark Sands, having a blast onstage), to change the ending of his now-famous tragedy so that Juliet chooses to live – not die – even though Romeo has poisoned himself.
Anne’s idea is to let Juliet make her own decisions, which she does for a while, escaping Verona to travel to Paris alongside her transgendered best friend May (a beguiling Justin David Sullivan), her devoted if sometimes exasperated Nurse (a delightfully off beat Melanie LaBarrie), and her new best friend (Wolfe). There, Juliet soon finds a “connection” with the shy Francois DuBois (Phillipe Arroyo) – who also happens to be the son of her Nurse’s long-ago love Lance (a game-for-anything Paulo Szot).
But, as expected, many complications ensue, especially after Will resurrects Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker, who makes a remarkable entrance looking like a lost Carter brother and belting an earth-shattering rendition of Jon Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”). The second act also brings Will and Anne’s marital strife to a head, as she considers a separation even while assuring Juliet that true love will conquer all through a remarkable, if contemplative, rendition of Celine Dion’s “That’s The Way It Is.”
While there’s not a bad performance to be found, this slightly tricky material rests on the legs and shoulders of Courtney, a relative newcomer, who delivers both her spoken and musical material with complete assurance. It takes a special performer to actually mine the lyrics of Britney Spears’ mega-hit “Oops, I Did It Again” as an actual act of contrition or to make Katy Perry’s “Roar” sound like more than just a rote feminist anthem but turn the song into an affirmation of true self-worth.
Oh, and before any chides me for calling this a “jukebox musical,” an actual jukebox sits on the stage for part of the show – just part of Sondra Gilmour’s whimsical set design (perfectly complemented by Paloma Young’s disarming costumes and Andrzej Goulding’s evocative video and projective design).
So why not use the term! After all, “&Juliet” pushes all the right buttons!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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