Broadway review by Adam Feldman
“Keep it light, keep it tight, keep it fun, and then we’re done!” That’s the pithy advice that the indignant 16th-century housewife Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe) imparts to her neglectful husband, William Shakespeare (Stark Sands), as a way to improve his play Romeo and Juliet, which she considers too much of a downer. It is also the guiding ethos of the new Broadway jukebox musical & Juliet, a quasi-Elizabethan romp through the chart-toppers of Swedish songwriter-producer Max Martin. A diverting synthetic crossbreed of Moulin Rouge!, Something Rotten!, Mamma Mia! and Head Over Heels, this show delivers just what you’d expect. It is what it is: It gives you the hooks and it gets the ovations.
Martin is the preeminent pop hitmaker of the past 25 years, so & Juliet has a lot to draw from. The show’s 30 songs include multiple bops originally recorded by the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Katy Perry, as well as tunes that Martin wrote—or, in all but two cases, co-wrote—for Pink, NSYNC, Kesha, Robyn, Kelly Clarkson, Jessie J, Céline Dion, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Ellie Goulding, Demi Lovato, Adam Lambert, the Weeknd and even Bon Jovi. (Notably absent are any of his collaborations with Taylor Swift.) “Roar,” “Domino,” “Since U Been Gone”: the hit list goes on and on. As a compilation disc performed live, it’s a feast for Millennials; its alternate title might well be Now That’s What I Call a Musical!
& Julietl | Photograph: Matthew Murphy
Along with these bangers, there is mash. Book writer David West Read (Schitt’s Creek) connects the dots of the musical numbers into the loose shape of a feminist journey, safely nested in metatheatrical and anachronistic quotation marks. As reimagined by Hathaway, the lovestruck Veronese teenager Juliet (Lorna Courtney) no longer offs herself, but finds herself instead. After mourning her dead Romeo in a keening version of "...Baby One More Time," she rounds up her entourage—her West Indian nurse, Angélique (Melanie La Barrie); her ambisexual bestie, May (Justin David Sullivan); and another friend, April, who is played by Hathaway herself—and heads to Paris, France, to take another shot at love. There they meet a rich military eminence named Lance (the game operatic baritone Paulo Szot, in a fleur-de-lys codpiece) and his gawky son, François (Philippe Arroyo), who becomes the inadvertent side of a romantic triangle.
Read does clever work in expanding details from previously unrelated lyrics into plot points, and the performers bring a lot to the turntable center stage. Wolfe in particular has terrific moments of exasperated wit, and La Barrie and Arroyo make strong impressions in their Broadway debuts. (La Barrie originated her role in the West End.) But although the talented Courtney sings the heck out of her many songs, she has surprisingly little to play. Its title notwithstanding, & Juliet barely takes time to define its heroine; it puts her at the center of the story and then makes her its least interesting character.
That may be why & Juliet, though often entertaining, also feels pretty disposable. The show-within-a-show framework doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it too much (or at all); aside from a plot strand involving the proto-trans May, who sings “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” the stakes are not sharp enough to drive the story into solid ground. Directed by Luke Sheppard, the musical exists in an elaborately unreal world: Soutra Gilmour’s scenic design and Paloma Young’s costumes are delightfully creative transhistorical mix-and-matches that float the show in a swirl of unfixed fantasy. It all feels comfortingly familiar and indistinct—there’s not much narrative thrust to Jennifer Weber’s synchronized hip-hop choreography, which mostly suggests energetic background dancing at a concert—and the ideal place for it might be the high school auditoriums where it will surely enjoy a rich afterlife someday. But there’s no denying the relentless effectiveness of Martin’s earworm craftsmanship. & Juliet gives audiences what they want from it: all those hits, baby, one more time.
& Juliet. Stephen Sondheim Theatre (Broadway). Music and lyrics by Max Martin and others. Book by David West Read. Directed by Luke Sheppard. With Lorna Courtney, Betsy Wolfe, Stark Sands, Paulo Szot, Melanie La Barrie, Justin David Sullivan, Philippe Arroyo, Ben Jackson Walker. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
& Julietl | Photograph: Matthew Murphy