& Juliet is a jukebox musical built around the songs of songwriter and producer Max Martin. Who? ask theatre buffs expecting something more Sondheim-esque at the Sondheim Theatre. Answer: He’s the Backstreet Boys (“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”). He’s NSYNC (“It’s Gonna Be Me”). He’s Celine Dion (“That’s The Way It Is”). He’s Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”). He’s Britney Spears (“Oops!…I Did it Again”). He’s Pink (“Fuckin’ Perfect”). He’s The Weeknd (“Can’t Feel My Face”). He’s the guy who puts together tunes that, if you’ve never heard them before, you’re singing along with by the time they’ve ended, and these and 21 other chart-topping hits are the backbone of the show. What kind of show exactly? The Playbill calls him “the Shakespeare of pop music,” so…
Schitt’s Creek writer and executive producer David West Read rewinds us to an opening night in the late 16th century, where the playwright, played with an amusingly snooty self-regard by Kinky Boots veteran Stark Sands, tends to his tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. His wife Anne Hathaway (“not that one”), tiring of her husband’s treatment of women as victims (and his patronizing treatment of her) proposes a different, more empowering end to the piece, and envisions a not-dead Juliet (Lorna Courtney, a perfect pop princess) walking out of her crypt in Verona and heading for rom-com misadventures in Paris instead. The show periodically revisits this authorial tug-of-war, and I must admit that for some time I was firmly Team Will–Anne’s inventions, upping the age of the characters to their twenties (avoiding all that icky teen lust) and dropping the bitter finale, smacked of a version that might find favor in our censorious enclaves. But Betsy Wolfe is thoroughly winning as the sweetly conniving Anne who, inserting herself into her own narrative, gets to be in her twenties, too.
Anne, apparently gifted with clairvoyance as to what theatre will be like on Broadway and the West End (from which this Olivier winner hails) 425 years in the future, gives her Juliet an unconventional suitor of sorts in studious François (Philippe Arroyo). But the timid lad only has eyes, covertly, for Juliet’s attractive new bestie May (played by Justin David Sullivan, a non-binary performer, who was understudied by Michael Iván Carrier the night I attended.) The show lopsidedly throws a lot of the first act their way, with attendant complications from Juliet’s brassy nurse Angélique (Melanie La Barrie, imported from the London production, and pictured) and François’ brawny dad, Lance (Tony winner and opera star Paulo Szot, pictured)–who once trysted with Angélique. Just as it looks like Anne is winning the battle of hearts and minds with an & J that’s so today her husband reveals the ace up his sleeve–the also not-dead Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker), an emo cad, who’s come to Paris to reclaim his bride. And…curtain!
There’s more plot to come, but that’s enough, or as much as I can remember given “Maximum” inundation. Without any direct ties to the narrative the songs are basically bubblegum-flavored taffy pulls, orchestrated, arranged, and amplified for laughs, sighs, and singalongs (with bits of book tucked in between performances). They’re a vibe backing the frenetic bedroom farces, all of which hinge on whether the ladies (and one gentleman) will embrace their partners or their own desires, or a little of both. As directed by Luke Sheppard the show doesn’t so much end as climax, with one of the very biggest songs in the Martinverse blasting through the standard conflicts so we can finally hear Juliet…well, you know.
But I’m not dismissing it. This is a party show for a Broadway that hasn’t had one since Six, and after the limply designed and impoverished-looking 1776 and Almost Famous it’s a relief to watch a musical with choreography (by Jennifer Weber) that embraces an array of pop styles and is happy to throw some bling around, with big sets (Soutra Gilmour), big lights (Howard Hudson), big sound (Gareth Owen), big video (Andrjez Goulding), and a big codpiece (costume designer Paloma Young I assume) for Szot, the least likely “Lance” imaginable. I love it when actors I associate with dignified portrayals (and Szot’s in the classic South Pacific revival of 15 years ago was eminently that) go all-in on comedy, and he certainly does, with some hilarious butt-slapping dancing with the formidably funny La Barrie and a “Bois Band” number (don’t ask) with the other guys. Everyone up there is giving their all but when Szot’s on stage & Juliet is some enchanted evening. Oops! I did it again…enough with the patter, go, have fun, and let the confetti drop (confetti drop, hello again!) rain over you. Parting with & Juliet is such sweet, silly sorrow.