Review by Brittany Crowell

Enter the Stephen Sondheim Theatre just before curtain most nights and you’ll witness the pre-show in action.  Actors dressed in a fun twist of modern and Shakespearean garb (many thanks to costume designer Paloma Young) are warming up, placing set units, and cavorting around the stage.  There’s a jukebox just to the side, a cheeky reminder that this pop musical is going to feature the repertoire of songwriter Max Martin and collaborators, and it’s emitting a somewhat familiar riff on the base and beat of something we’ve likely heard before.

If this sounds like a fun, enthusiastic ride, then just wait until the true performance begins!  Directed by Luke Sheppard and featuring the pumps and kicks of choreographer Jennifer Weber (whose highly energetic and carefully crafted moves can also be seen just up the way in KPOP at Circle in the Square), & Juliet only picks up in stamina and spirit.

The book, by David West Read, begins as a familiar one: a cast of players preparing for the launch of the era’s most prolific playwright, Shakespeare’s newest work: Romeo & Juliet. However the company’s efforts are thwarted by Shakespeare’s wily wife, Anne Hathaway (played with perfect comedic timing by the magnetic Betsy Wolfe), who debunks her husband, stealing his quill to pen an ending of her own

Lorna Courtney in & JULIET; photo by Matthew Murphy

Enter Juliet, played by star-in-the-making Lorna Courtney, who sets the scene belting a felt rendition of “Baby One More Time,” and so begins the clever rethinking of popular hits and Juliet’s journey towards confidence and independence.  & Juliet is full of amazing performances, charming characters, magnificent numbers, and fun quips, however, the story line and the playlist don’t leave much room for emotional depth or growth within the characters.  Within the first five songs of the musical, Juliet is “feeling sexy and free” and seems to have found the independence and freedom she is looking for, despite her propensity for jumping into things too soon.  While the collaboration between pop energy and emotional storytelling serves as a fun punch-line, most songs did little to further the emotional journey after one’s initial joy of recognizing the hit tune.

However, if you are not looking for any lasting takeaway, this play within a play’s energy and humor may pull you through. Many jokes are made at the expense of Shakespeare, pop culture, and everything in between.  The audience at the Saturday night performance I attended were cheering for each new song like they had gotten tickets to a Backstreet Boys concert (and they were really back; alright!).  Laughter filled the theater in all of its joyful, healing wonder.  It was a beautiful thing. 

On top of that the scenic design by Soutra Gilmour combined concert sensation with medieval tapestry, mixing extravagance with renaissance and incorporating lighting by Howard Hudson and video & projection design by Andrzej Goulding for an experience that transports the audience to Broadway and Madison Square Garden all at once.  The spectacle in itself is worth attending for.

Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe in & JULIET; photo by Matthew Murphy

When you strip away the extravaganza, the true story can be found hiding underneath layers of players and glitter.  Simplified, the piece is about two lovers married too soon looking back on their choices through the lens of Romeo and Juliet.   As Anne and Shakespeare fight for the quill and serve as puppeteer for the beloved characters of Romeo (played in my performance by a charmingly humorous Daniel J. Maldonado) and Nurse (Melanie La Barrie) and pen new staples including May (Justin David Sullivan), Lance (Paulo Szot), & Francois (Philippe Arroyo), we watch them fight and wonder: for your fire, your one desire, is it ever too late?


& JULIET – Music & Lyrics by Max Martin and friends; book by David West Read

Directed by Luke Sheppard; music supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Bill Sherman; choreography by Jennifer Weber

FEATURING: Lorna Courtney (Juliet); Paulo Szot (Lance); Betsy Wolfe (Anne); Stark Sands (Shakespeare); Justin David Sullivan (May); Melanie La Barrie (Nurse); Daniel J. Maldonado (Romeo, this performance); Phillipe Arroyo (Francois)

COMPANY: Brandon Antonio; Michael Iván Carrier; Nico DeJesus; Nicholas Edwards; Virgil Gadson; Bobby “Pocket” Horner; Joomin Hwang; Megan Kane; Alaina Vi Maderal; Joe Moeller; Brittany Nicholas; Veronica Otim; Jasmine Rafael; Matt Raffy; Tiernan Tunnicliffe; Ben Jackson Walker; and Rachel Webb.

Scenic design by Soutra Gilmour; costume design by Paloma Young; lighting design by Howard Hudson; sound design by Gareth Owen; video and projection design by Andrzej Goulding; hair wig and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. At the Stephen Sondheim Theatre – 124 West 43rd Street.