‘& Juliet’ Serves Pure Pop Scrumptiousness
Imagine a musical that uses the hottest pop-bops from your tween years to rewrite Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as redesigned by Anne Hathaway. No, not the Anne who won an Oscar for Les Mis―the other one, who has an ax to grind with her playwright hubby Will who’s never at home and seems allergic to portraying happy marriages.
If that sounds off-the-wall but fun to you, you’ll likely love & Juliet―the latest jukebox musical to hit Broadway. As a “serious theatre critic,” I’m supposed to hate intellectual property-driven pieces that could have been put together by a committee of woke-minded, girl-boss-loving, YAS kweens. To quote a friend’s teenager who did not care for the show, “That musical felt like someone fed Gen Z tweets to artificial intelligence.”
I must confess that watching Max Martin’s co-written music and lyrics get wedged into dramatic situations they were never meant to support, often felt like I was in the middle of a Skittles-and-molly-fueled episode of Glee―which is not my idea of a good time. And yet, when combined with David West Read’s (of Schitt’s Creek fame) book, Jennifer Weber’s pitch-perfect boy & gurl band choreography, Luke Sheppard’s gloriously modulated direction, and performances from a cast that all but belted its tits to the rafters, I totally fell in love.
It’s not just that this insanely talented cast was more diverse than The Lion King’s, or that the show is aware of how silly it is, and refuses to take itself too seriously―the joy of imbibing & Juliet’s punch-drunk ferociousness is that it invites audiences to have a wacky time while celebrating getting sloppy, but without pandering to them.
The overall story posits what would have happened if Juliet (Lorna Courtney, all the superlatives apply) decided not to sheath that dagger in her bosom, but instead took off on a road trip to Paris with her Nurse (Melanie La Barrie, show-stoppingly fabulous) and newly created besties―nonbinary dreamy twink May (Justin David Sullivan) and April who is played magically by Anne Hatheway, who writes herself into the story and ages everyone upwards because she refuses to pal around with 13-year-olds (she is actually performed by Betsy Wolfe in a marvelous star turn). All this while defying Lady Capulet (Veronica Otim, gorgeous, statuesque, & hilariously villainous) who plans on sending her daughter off to a nunnery.
Hijinks ensue when William (Stark Sands) sabotages his wife’s good times by bringing Romeo (Daniel J. Maldonado, an understudy who claimed the part as his own at the performance I attended) back to life, just as Juliet and Anne, er April, are starting to make a new life for themselves.
And there it is: though this is supposed to be Juliet’s story, it’s really Anne’s reckoning with her own dissatisfaction and the fact that she may have outgrown Will and the politics of Elizabethan England.
None of this could have ever happened, but when seen on stage it becomes evident that serving as some guy’s option or submitting to inherit his second-best-bed, instead of claiming his best of everything, is the lot that many women and gay men continue to accept. & Juliet makes a pointed feminist critique of heterodoxy and also allows gay men to see themselves not only through Anne Hathaway’s awakening to what she wants but in Juliet’s turning away from what is expected of her.
Les gays are also given their own narrative through the character May, who accepts that they may never be the girl they see inside, but they deserve to eat their whole cake. And by cake, I mean Francois Du Bois (Philippe Arroyo, delightfully daffy and blessed with a pop-belt of steel), a dreamy dish she meets after crashing his party with Juliet and Co.
Francois’ machismo Kool-Aid-sipping dad, Lance (Paulo Szot, serving a swirl of dad-bod opéra bouffe yumminess) demands that he get married or join the army. Though initially convinced to marry Juliet so that they can both avoid gendered captivity, Francois realizes that if he’s going to be with anyone… it’s gonna be May.
After rejecting marriage and embracing what he really wants, Juliet takes a moment to accept that while love at first sight might be the dumbest thing to stake one’s future on, she’s still willing to talk to Romeo―if he’s okay with taking it slowly, trying to get to know each other, and accepting that maybe they won’t end up together.
Nothing about & Juliet is groundbreaking or original. But in refusing to take itself deadly seriously reminds us that theatre doesn’t have to look a certain way or fulfill specific mandates to be worthwhile. Sometimes having a good time is enough―something that was acceptable for tired, old, businessmen, but that has been denied younger and queerer audiences for decades.
Whether & Juliet’s brand of a good time may not be for you, I had such a wonderful time that I plan on twerking my butt back to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre to slurp up the pop scrumptiousness at least two more times.
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