Theater Review: ‘& Juliet’
From & Juliet at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
Photo: Matthew Murphy
If you were to adapt the feeling of getting day-drunk on cheap rosé for the stage, you’d get & Juliet. The aggressively effervescent musical has come to Broadway, & it intends to wash you away in the blushy delights of pop feminism & hit singles & middle-school-level Shakespeare jokes. At times, such as when someone belts the chorus of “Since U Been Gone” at you, it is impossible not to feel intoxicated. & at others, such as when any character tries to explain any part of this show’s plot, you may feel as if the world has started to spin desperately out of control. You may shout “Woo!” & you may feel queasy. You’ll have that ephemeral thrill of being alive on a dance floor & end up with a hangover.
We all know Juliet dies at the end of Romeo & Juliet, but & Juliet asks, What if she didn’t? What if, instead, she switched into a pair of sneakers & gallivanted away from Verona & went to Paris for a grand adventure of self-actualization & was joined by her nurse & (okay, that’s enough of that) her nonbinary friend, May? That’s the edit that Anne Hathaway — rest assured, book writer David West Read of Schitt’s Creek gets in a joke about the actress — suggests to her husband, Will Shakespeare, at the top of the show, after which she inserts herself into the action as Juliet’s other friend, April (rest assured, you also get a joke about how all these names are months). Once in Paris — you know they’re there because a tiny set piece resembles the Moulin Rouge and another depicts a Métro stop — Juliet & Co. have a run-in with an awkward young prince named François and his swaggering father, while Anne and Will argue about how much conflict this whole tale should actually have. The answer: barely enough! Would you believe romantic complications ensue?
The real stars here are the songs, all from the catalogue of Max Martin and his collaborators. (That list of collaborators includes Dr. Luke, also credited as a producer of the musical, which does not sit well with the feminist packaging.) Martin is a Swedish mastermind of cascading bass lines, tectonic key changes, and incoherent lyrics. If you’re not cognizant of him by name, you’ve absorbed his work secondhand somewhere or, at the very least, danced to it at a wedding reception. The Playbill refers to him as “basically the Shakespeare of pop music,” and to be fair, both writers invented phrases (“My heart is like an open highway”… what?). & Juliet’s song list is replete with some of the highest-grade nonsense of the past three decades, from Britney’s “… Baby One More Time” to Pink’s “Fuckin’ Perfect” with a heavy gravy ladling of Backstreet Boys along the way.
At its best, the show just does away with logic and gives you full-throated renditions of Martin’s more insistent anthems. Director Luke Sheppard has newcomer Lorna Courtney’s Juliet stand-and-deliver the likes of “Roar” with confidence and swagger, and I definitely felt an urge to massage my own vocal cords in sympathy. Of mixed efficacy are the attempts to make Martin’s songs work as dramatic monologues, which can’t help but resemble extended TikTok comedy bits. Melanie La Barrie, as Juliet’s nurse, and Paulo Szot, as François’s father, Lance, have the difficult assignment of turning “Teenage Dream” into a duet about lost love. They succeed only by unhinging their jaws and devouring every piece of scenery around them.
Martin’s already creaky ballads, however, fall flat. I cannot say any real depths of emotion can be mined from “Shape of My Heart” or “One More Try” despite the show’s every attempt to woo me with emoting and a fog machine. Luckily, & Juliet seems to know that “earnest” isn’t its strongest suit and swerves away from it often. At one point, music supervisor Bill Sherman smashes the choruses of “Problem” and “Can’t Feel My Face” on top of each other, a decision so absurd I could only sit there in awe and terror. Jennifer Weber’s choreography contributes to the effect, one I would describe as “so much stomping.”
In its staging, messaging, and costuming — I would describe the aesthetic as a Renaissance Faire held inside a Forever 21 — & Juliet owes an obvious debt to Six, another recent import built on pop-group empowerment via 16th-century Britain. That musical has the charm of feeling like an overgrown college project (which it basically is), whereas & Juliet has the unnerving glitz of something more corporate contorting itself toward winning you over. And it does, if incompletely: There’s sweetness in the story line around May’s acceptance, and Justin David Sullivan plays them with a winning, slightly downward, shy gaze, though that plot gets rushed in amid the musical’s attempts to keep its own energy scurrying forward. The script has May sing “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” and a duet version of “I Kissed a Girl,” toeing the line between playfully sending up the gender dynamics of those songs and congratulating itself for being so clever. (“You know I’m not a girl, right?” May says in the middle of “I Kissed a Girl.”) Is that genuine subversion or just a way to refurbish a back catalogue?
The most complete character is Anne, played with gusto by Betsy Wolfe in a performance that, subtextually, is about being a geriatric millennial worried about her own relevancy. She barges into Will’s rehearsal announcing that she has left the kids with the sitter and wants to “watch this play, have a very large glass of wine, and hopefully not fall asleep before intermission,” a line laser-targeted at the many moms feeling the same way in the audience. Then she starts fiddling with his play out of both righteousness and jealousy. Underneath her desire for her husband to acknowledge her ideas, Anne is trying to stake a claim to being cool. She wants to keep up with the kids as they party, she keeps implying she is close in age to Juliet (whom the musical ages up from 13 to 22, just to be less icky), and she uses the word yass. I believe the teens would consider that cringe, but the teens aren’t the ones nostalgically primed to lose their minds over the opening salvo of “It’s Gonna Be Me,” or the ones with the money to buy Broadway tickets. Beneath the fluorescent surface of & Juliet, you can sense the chilly logic of commerce targeting a new generational bracket. If you’re in that specific cohort — perhaps old enough to have taken a BuzzFeed quiz about being a ’90s kid back in the 2010s when BuzzFeed quizzes were a thing — maybe it’ll make you feel young again to cheer along to the Act I finale, “It’s My Life.” But then you may start to confront the fact that you “ain’t gonna live forever,” as Martin so poetically had Bon Jovi sing. Man, doesn’t your back hurt from sitting so long?
During the first act of & Juliet, a piece of confetti fluttered ominously down onto my head, freeing itself from somewhere up in the rafters in what felt like a delightful prelude of things to come. By the second act, confetti was shooting out of cannons toward me with a regularity that would astound a Napoleonic drill marshal. There’s this inexorable thrust of bombast when music and paper and light are flying at you and a Broadway actor is ascending into the sky on a stage lift. Beyond the concerns of good taste or bad, a gesture like that makes you levitate out of your seat. Then you go home and back to your life, and you wake up the next morning groggy, aching, and longing for coffee. & as you stumble around your bedroom, you keep finding all these goddamned pieces of confetti on the floor.