Review of the musical &Juliet

In a scene from "& Juliet," Lorna Courtney shines in a dark pink dress, surrounded by an energetic ensemble. This musical, starring Courtney at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, features wit on multiple levels.

The jukebox isn't hidden; it's blatantly on stage, a chrome Cyclops staring at you before the show begins.

Are you challenging me, "& Juliet"?

As a critic, I've done everything to abolish the jukebox musical. I've labeled it a cockroach, a straitjacket, a leech, a dead fish. With few exceptions, I've argued it's unsatisfactory as music or theater, let alone both. I've proudly stood among my colleagues as a denier of everything shows like "& Juliet" typically represent.

So shoot me: I liked it. It felt so wrong; it felt so right.

Despite "& Juliet," which premiered Thursday on Broadway after a hit run in London, having the faint odor of brand extension and carpetbagging typical of other disheartening examples like “Motown: The Musical,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” and the inexcusable “Escape to Margaritaville,” I found it captivating. The show’s purpose is to exploit Max Martin's back catalog, the Swedish hitmaker behind Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and 24 other No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1998.

The quality of the songs — chunky, hooky, belty, dancy — is irrelevant; they're generally good, or there'd be no audience. Typical of such shows, "& Juliet" integrates them into unlikely contexts, aiming for laughs that are little more than Pavlovian responses to familiar tunes.

What saves "& Juliet" from being a lowest-common-denominator corporate product is something unexpected: wit.

The wit operates on many levels in director Luke Sheppard’s vibrant production, including hilarious hybrid Elizabethan costumes (by Paloma Young) with a codpiece the size of a snapping turtle, cotton-candy lighting (by Howard Hudson), and playful sets (by Soutra Gilmour) situating the story in a century that merges the 16th and ours.

In one scene, Stark Sands as Shakespeare and Betsy Wolfe as Anne Hathaway stand side by side, singing.

But that’s just the surface. More important are fundamental choices about what a jukebox musical can and should be. "& Juliet" is not — like “Jersey Boys” and “The Cher Show” — a biomusical, chronicling artists’ ups and downs no matter how distorted or fictionalized. Instead, it opts for an original story, if you can consider a reboot of “Romeo and Juliet” original. Making that story a fable — like “Head Over Heels,” the Go-Go’s romp from 2018 — smartly relieves it of the pressure of reality.

David West Read’s book aims higher. Given that many of Martin’s biggest songs featured singers like Perry, Britney Spears, Pink, and Ariana Grande — Taylor Swift’s are notably absent — focusing on a young woman made sense. Yet Juliet, as Shakespeare wrote her, comes with baggage, including the fact that by the sixth line of the prologue, she’s dead.

Undoing that fate became the musical’s driving force. In Read’s telling, Juliet (Lorna Courtney in a blow-you-away performance) doesn’t die but wakes up confused and a little emo after Romeo’s suicide. Cue “…Baby One More Time,” which she performs, still in her funeral dress but now with headphones and a Walkman, in front of her lover’s sarcophagus.

That’s as grim as “& Juliet” gets — not very — because, as the erasure of Romeo from its title suggests, this girl is getting a glow-up. The show moves into meta territory, introducing Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, as the force behind the revision. “I mean, what do I know,” Anne (Betsy Wolfe) slyly tells cocky Will (Stark Sands). “Maybe she doesn’t kill herself just because he killed himself?”

When Will insists (to knowing chuckles) that he writes his plays entirely by himself, Anne grabs the quill until he agrees to share authorship. To raise the meta ante, they also write themselves into the tale. "& Juliet" then processes the Shakespeares’ marital issues through Juliet’s new story, toggling between Anne’s feminist uplift and Will’s need to complicate it.

So when the scene shifts to Paris, where Anne provides Juliet with a new boy to enjoy, that boy — François du Bois (Philippe Arroyo) — turns out to have eyes for someone else, whom Will has contrived to throw in his path. The plot twists through several Shakespearean tropes, including comic mismatches, reunited lovers (Paulo Szot and Melanie La Barrie), and the return of yet another character (I won’t spoil who, but you can probably guess) from the grave.

The songs illustrating these developments — “Oops! … I Did It Again” when Juliet agrees to marry François, “Blow” for a big Paris ball — are mostly fitting. However, with nearly 30 songs squeezed into the show’s 150 minutes, they eventually dig an aural rut. (The sound design by Gareth Owen doesn’t help, with its arena-style reverb in a relatively small theater.) Some songs have the tang of reverse engineering, as when Juliet’s nonbinary best friend, May, is given Spears’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”

Nevertheless, May (Justin David Sullivan) is a typically clever modern gloss on Shakespeare — a playwright, as Anne points out, who is “basically synonymous with gender-bending.” And if three of the couples, liberated by Juliet’s liberation, achieve surprisingly normative happy endings, the girl herself ends the show uncommitted, still trying to “own her choices,” apparently by not making any.

Most of the comedy derives from similar tensions. Though “& Juliet” is jokey, and its authorship is entirely male, its feminist critique is real, winking alternately at Shakespeare’s assumptions and ours. At one point, Anne up-ages Juliet by about a decade because she’s “not going clubbing with a 13-year-old” — nor (it goes unsaid) letting a 13-year-old marry.

Anne provides most of the wit, not just verbal but philosophical. Wolfe’s performance — capped with a roof-raising rendition of the Celine Dion hit “That’s the Way It Is” — gives the show its heart, an organ too often unheard from in musicals focused entirely on the ear.

I could have used a bit more brain, though; “& Juliet” sometimes seems suspicious of its own intelligence, like a nerd invited to the cool kids’ party, only to get drunk and vomit in the pool.

The overcompensation — two confetti explosions? — is unnecessary. Jukebox musicals may still be bottom feeders, but, as “& Juliet” proves, there are sometimes small treasures to be found in the murk. And as long as they’re going to keep arriving regardless, I have to admit (citing Martin’s hit for theater critics the Backstreet Boys) I want it that way.

Musical &Juliet – North American tour

Don’t miss the North American tour of &Juliet in the following cities: Baltimor;
Pittsburgh; Seattle

You may also like...