It’s not a bad idea, using a bullet-proof classic like Romeo and Juliet as a fond envelope for an impelling collection of pop songs by a beloved artist who died cruelly young, about the same age as Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers.
The scant body of work left by the late Jeff Buckley (1966-1997) obviously continues to inspire a devoted circle of admirers, many of whom have labored over The Last Goodbye, a “musical adaptation” of Shakespeare’s classic now swaggering on the Old Globe Theatre’s main stage.
The concept is that of Michael Kimmel, whose very first hurdle was to make room in “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” for some songs. That he’s done in sturdy fashion: The show gallops. After all, everything is revealed in the Prologue, which Kimmel retains in full. Thereafter, it’s just a matter of how much Balcony Scene has to go or how well can we know Nurse and Friar Laurence.
There’s probably too much about Rosalind, Romeo’s early crush, and not enough of Mercutio, who’s reduced to mostly strutting and fighting. And the Prince is just another guy. But somehow, Kimmel finds time to fill out both sets of parents sufficiently that the story makes enough sense.
As with any R&J, it’s the title roles that have to click and here, the show is in excellent hands. Both Jay Armstrong Johnson and Talisa Friedman are young, beautiful and possessed of the essential magnetism needed. They sing with spirit, they volley their love-lines true and straight and, if there seems a lot of her sturdy legs and his buff, hairless torso, well, decorum is part of the baggage jettisoned in their pursuit of their immortal passion.
So, how do the songs work? Well, frankly, it’s a problem when Shakespeare’s priceless verse frames “I know we could be so happy together, Baby, if we wanted to be.” But Kimmel sees to it that the words never really slosh over. The songs become Jeff Buckley tokens exchanged by Shakespeare’s characters. And, given the urgency and subtle drives of Buckley’s best stuff, that’s enough.
It would take several subsequent hearings to get comfortable (or not) with the show itself but the concept is celebratory, earnest and appealing and the staging is fueled by adrenalin.
Alex Timber directs with vivid, muscular self-assurance, uninterested in contradictions or detailing. Sex and power are the subjects and that’s where he sets up his shop, aided by equally aggressive movement associates, choreographer Sonia Tayeh, whose Capulet ball looks like a gang-bang for Juliet, and fight director Kate Waters (assisted by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum), who makes the whole stage into a terrifying melee of naked (and real) steel, with daggers, sabres, rapiers, Japanese swords and even a meat cleaver, energetically wielded.
There’s solid classical competence in this large cast that allows the musical elements room to bloom. Stephen Bogardus is a solid Friar and Tonye Patano, though left with little more that exposition and eye-rolling, provides the Nurse when needed. Daniel Oreskes as Capulet and Jeremy Woodard as Tybalt smolder with privilege and insult while Shannon Cochran is elegant and suggestive as Lady Capulet.
Minus the Queen Mab speech, Mercutio is mostly touchy bluster but Hale Appleman finds a prissy arrogance that works. And Brandon Gill is selfless and stalwart as the useful Benvolio, right up to the singing of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the bier, soon after Romeo has revived briefly from the poison, grand opera fashion, to sing a final duet with Juliet and the Prince has delivered the final couplet and… Well, there are things that could be fixed, true.
In addition to Cohen, the program includes an “additional music and lyrics” credit that lists also C. Azar, Chris Dowd, Mike Grohdahl, Mat Johnson and Gary Lucas and even Benjamin Britten. Pulling this score together without Buckley’s presence must have been a major labor for music director Kris Kukul, who did the orchestrations and arrangements.
Kukul also presided in the pit, though the dominant music figure for the audience was definitely lead guitarist and singer Adam Cochran, who more or less filled the void left by Buckley, quite respectably. The program lists a trio of string players, though I never heard them. Otherwise, Kukul found all that was necessary in the usual guitar/keyboard/percussion mix.
Christopher Barreca’s towering, textured arches delight with eloquent masonry but Justin Townsend’s lighting doesn’t always mesh. There are a lot of crude cross-lights and way too much careless spill. Jennifer Moeller’s basic black, crotch-grabbing leathers look as 1990s as those bright lights boring into the audience eyeballs but hey, some times the old ways are best, right?
History isn’t being made with this show but I like it just fine. There’s a vitality and a restless ensemble aggressiveness that I find refreshing. Possibly because so many of these artists are up-to-speed New York strivers of the moment, there’s an invigorating strut that I’m going to believe comes along with the Globe’s new artistic director Barry Edelstein, who now is beginning to take over for real after years right in the middle of that Manhattan ferment.
Maybe we CAN have it all.