Like so many students, I studied Romeo and Juliet in high school. It’s a tragic romance story that has been adapted in so many ways ever since it was first published by William Shakespeare in 1597. But I’ve never liked the ending. I know it’s a classic, but I have never agreed that Juliet should have died, and so the concept of “what if Juliet didn’t die” is incredibly exciting and intriguing – and timely in our modern era.
The creation of this production started with the idea to write a musical using the catalogue of songs by Max Martin. The list of musical numbers is a collection of hits, which would have worked with any basic plot and could have made for a good musical. But the well-written book takes the show to a whole different level, from being more than just another jukebox musical.
The book is written by David West Read (Schitt’s Creek) who picks up the story of Juliet where the classic Shakespearean tale left off. Rather than tell the story simply through Juliet, it’s primarily told through the author himself. William Shakespeare is rehearsing his latest tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, but when joined by his wife Anne Hathaway, his story gets interrupted. Like me, Anne wasn’t very happy with the tragic ending to Shakespeare’s tale, and suggests her own version, suggesting an alternate pathway for Juliet.
Shakespeare and Hathaway take turns in writing the plot, while the story comes to life on the stage. Max Martin’s hit songs help to tell the story and keep the energy levels high. While the song list is very much a Millenial’s nostalgic soundtrack to life, the music will be known to a wide audience and will appeal to any musical theatre lover. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact this is very much a juke-box musical, with a juke box starting centre stage as the show opens.
For anyone not familiar with the Bard’s work, there are numerous educational moments in the show where Shakespeare explains, “I wrote that”, and there’s a good summary of the plot of the original Romeo and Juliet for anyone who hasn’t read the original book. Hathaway and Shakespeare continue to debate how they want the story to unfold, paralleling the fate of the star-crossed lovers with their own marital woes. In a pivotel and powerful moment, Shakespeare’s quill is broken, leaving Juliet to write her own ending to her story, profoundly making a bold statement about self empowerment.
There are numerous ways David West Read could have chosen to end this story, and he made the perfect choice for Juliet, cleverly linking the end of the musical back to the closing lines of Shakespeare’s original story: “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo”.
& Juliet excels on every level. Michael Azzopardi’s musical direction brings the instantly recognisable hits songs to life. The brilliant choreography (Jennifer Weber) is superbly executed by an outstanding and diverse ensemble cast. The lighting design (Howard Hudson) enhances the show, while the scenic design (Soutra Gilmour) has some wonderful surprises and is suitably aided by video projections (Andrzej Goulding). Costume design (Paloma Young) gives a clever Shakespearean modern pop vibe.
Superb direction (Luke Sheppard) brings out the most of every comic moment, whilst also managing to pull at the heartstrings. It’s suitably over the top camp but also makes some bold affirming statements, all with a fun pop concert atmosphere. Images and video trailers simply don’t do the show justice; you have to experience & Juliet.
But the real success of this Australian premiere production of & Juliet is in the casting. Every single cast member is outstanding. The casting is diverse, but the one trait they all have is their exceptional level of talent.
Lorinda May Merrypor is a revelation as Juliet – strong, confident and determined – with incredible soaring vocals and a commanding stage presence.
Rob Mills is perfectly cast as William Shakespeare, he’s confidently larger than life, but also brings a warmth and humanity to the character when the Bard’s own marital struggles are brought to light. Playing his wife, Anne Hathaway, is Amy Lehpamer who is extraordinary in this role – bold, wise, sensitive and inspirational. Lehpamer is already highly regarded for her singing and acting prowess, but this role now firmly establishes her as a true triple threat with some mesmerising dance moves.
Casey Donovan is delightful as Juliet’s nurse maid, Angelique. Hayden Tee is superb as Lance, delivering some of the funniest lines in the show. Their comedic timing is impeccable and the pair share a beautiful chemistry.
Blake Appelqvist is brilliant as Romeo, bringing a rock-star vibe to the character. Romeo is a little immature, a little self-absorbed, very over-the-top, but still very endearing.
Rounding out the lead characters are May (Jesse Dutlow) and Francois (Yashith Fernando). May is Juliet’s best friend and Dutlow brings a beautiful tenderness to the role. Fernando brings a sweet softness to the role of Francois, providing a stark contrast to the brash confidence of Romeo.
Special mention also to Sarah Murr who makes the most of her brief moments as Lady Capulet, delivering a wicked queen fairy tale vibe.
Unpacking anything further will require plot spoilers, but for anyone new to the story, there’s numerous love story threads happening. If you want to find out just who lives happily ever after, you’ll need to see & Juliet for yourself.
& Juliet is a glittery celebration of diversity and empowerment. It’s high energy, fun-filled entertainment with an engaging story that is relatable to a wide audience.
& Juliet is now playing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre DIstrict for a limited season. The preview shows sold out, so get in quick!