Regent Theatre, Melbourne – until 14 May 2023
A breathless, rollicking rush of a feelgood musical comedy, & Juliet makes its Australian premiere in killer form, with a peak Australian cast of fantabulous powerhouse artists.
The lone new production in the current sea of well worn revivals, 2019 UK hit & Juliet is the best new show that Melbourne musical lovers have never heard of. A cunningly creative confection, the show deftly blends the unlikely combination of 21st century pop and 16th century drama.
A jukebox musical so confident in its identity that there is an actual jukebox on stage, the potential status of & Juliet as merely a guilty pleasure is successfully counterbalanced by book writer David West Read, who cannily infuses the coming of age fantasia with knowing winks at the sexism and tropes of Shakespeare’s day. When William Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway takes the quill, the well known tragedy Romeo & Juliet veers freely into unexplored pastures, coloured with a distinctly present day focus of feminism, gender fluidity, and the transformative power of self belief.
The show’s title refers to Anne’s first edit of her husband’s new play, in which Juliet does not take her life but rather sets off, Nurse in tow, on a journey of self discovery and romantic adventure. Also accompanied by non-binary BFF May and secondary BFF April (played by Anne Hathaway), Juliet speeds off to conquer new complications in cosmopolitan Paris.
Variations fly from the competing quills of William and Anne in act one, including the introduction of forbidding father Lance Du Bois and his lovelorn son François. In act two, the duelling authors cede control, allowing the story to unfold however the characters wish.
Drawing from the mighty catalogue of prolific, prodigious song writer Max Martin, Read weaves some 30 hit songs into his original narrative. If there is one thing more amazing than the sheer range of artists for whom Martin has composed, it is the way Read has so ingeniously and seamlessly fitted the songs to the characters and storyline. From Anne and William arguing over plot points in “I Want It That Way” to Romeo reclaiming his place in the story with “It’s My Life” to Juliet responding to his return with “Since U Been Gone”, the songs advance the story and Read scores abundant laughs with his wonderfully witty writing.
Arguably the cleverest repurposing of a song comes with Britney Spears hit ‘I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman’, in which May laments that their current physical gender status does not reflect their true self, preventing them from seeking romance by expressing themself as they would truly wish:
I’m not a girl
Not yet a woman
All I need is time
A moment that is mine
While I’m in between
Bringing the fresh characters and brisk story roaring to life, director Luke Sheppard and choreographer Jennifer Weber neatly balance high wattage energy with tender interludes. Stakes are kept high, and the well constructed characters readily engage audience affection. Tightly rehearsed, Weber’s work is performed with equal measures of joy and precision.
Collaborating with scenic designer Soutra Gilmour, Sheppard cultivates a sense of spontaneity and improvisation to match the “real time” writing of the play. Paloma Young’s playful costumes are eye-catching in their deconstructed Elizabethan chic styling. Lighting designer Howard Hudson and video and projection designer Andrzej Goulding ramp up the spectacle with ever-changing visual fireworks. Dance numbers may take on the vibe of a watching music video clip live on stage, but the abundant effects are judiciously reined in for intimate scenes.
With Martin’s variegated songs orchestrated and arranged to a unified sound by Bill Sherman, music director Michael Azzopardi helms a tight band to deliver a musical performance as exciting as the spectacle on stage. Even better, sound designer Gareth Owen keeps the music crisp and balanced, avoiding the temptation to ramp volumes up too high.
With an extraordinary belt and a vibrant stage presence, Lorinda May Merrypor plays Juliet with the vocal power to match any one of the pop stars who originally performed these songs. Merrypor’s vocal performance is a clear highlight of & Juliet, and is one that will surely earn her legions of fans.
All class, Amy Lehpamer conjures a rounded and compelling character for the little-known Anne, scoring points for all womanhood by imbuing Anne’s impassioned arguments with full believability. The audience’s conduit into the story and setting, Lehpamer dazzles with polished confidence, further colouring the role with heartfelt vulnerability. Well cast to fit Shakespeare’s roguish dynamic, Rob Mills is in full cheeky chappy mode, giving a highly likeable performance.
Casey Donovan goes from strength to strength as adorable Angélique, filling the role with warmth and heart. Making a very welcome Melbourne appearance, international stage star Hayden Tee brings debonair style to Lance. In a nice touch for a show about young love, the only bedroom scene in & Juliet is between “mature age” characters Angélique and Lance. When Donovan and Tee romp it up with “Teenage Dream” / “Break Free”, the sparks of electricity could power a small town.
Rising young performer Blake Appelqvist gives a magnetic performance as the caddish Romeo. Pretty in pink, Appelqvist brings a showy rock star swagger to the self-absorbed man-child.
Jesse Dutlow underscores the gentle nature of May with a determined focus. While the title character of Juliet takes her natural place centre stage, Dutlow captures the audience’s heartstrings as May emerges as the key romantic protagonist. Yashith Fernando rounds out the set of young leads as François, neatly underplaying the natural confusion of François’ sexual awakening. In the least flashy role, Fernando nonetheless crafts a captivating character, and displays truly lovely chemistry with Dutlow.
The ensemble cast of lively individuals works cohesively as one to give a thrilling song and dance performance.
An absolute gift to young theatregoers, & Juliet is set to spark a love for musical theatre in a whole new generation of fans.
& Juliet plays at Regent Theatre, Melbourne. For tickets, click here.
Man in Chair reviewed the original production of & Juliet on Broadway.
Photos: Daniel Boud