Live: “The Last Goodbye” @ Williamstown Theatre Festival
“Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of teen love torn asunder by prejudice, has survived a myriad of musical mutations.
It has been interpreted as a symphony (“Roméo et Juliette” by Hector Berlioz), pop songs (especially by Dire Straits); several ballets (most notably by Sergei Prokofiev) and a handful of operas (highlighted by Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” and Charle Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” the latter upcoming on NYC’s Metropolitan Opera’s 2010-2011 season).
For the Broadway production of “West Side Story,” it was updated to NYC in the ’50s with a powerhouse score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 high-intensity film found Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in a more contemporary setting, with a soundtrack that featured Garbage, Everclear, Prince, the Cardigans, the Butthole Surfers and Radiohead.
And speaking of Radiohead, just last year Jacob’s Pillow hosted a production of “Radio and Juliet,” Ballet Maribor’s unique modern dance interpretation choreographed by Edward Clug to seven songs from the catalog of Thom Yorke’s Radiohead.
All of which leads us to the world premiere of a new musical interpretation, “The Last Gooodbye,” which is currently in the midst of its world premiere run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. And this time around, the star-crossed lovers are mixing it up with the music of the late Jeff Buckley.
The mash-up was conceived, adapted and directed by Michael Kimmel, and his gamble pays off. Big time.
Of course, neither Willie the Shake nor Buckley (who drowned in 1997) are around to give their consent (or their opinions), but the sold-out crowds at WTF have obviously been in agreement.
The production is gangbusters – a truly thrilling slice of theater. It’s bold. It’s sexy. It’s downright electrifying. And the contemporary update – set amidst stage designer Michael Brown’s crumbling urban stage set – makes the Montague/Capulet feud resonate with all sorts of current social and political issues.
There are two genuinely spine-tingling, show-stopping moments – the ghost of Mercutio’s howling rendition of “Eternal Life” that closes Act One with a bang and the Juliet’s soul-bearing scorch of “What Will You Say,” as she prepares to down the potion to induce her death-like state early in Act Two.
In the production’s other big gamble, Mercutio is played by a woman, but Jo Lampert emerges as the star of the show, investing herself fully in the role and playing it with a feral fierceness. She is sorely missed in Act Two.
Damon Daunno’s Romeo, however, is unfortunately no match for Kelli Barrett’s exquisite Juliet. His strength is his singing, but he brought little interpretation to his songs, instead hewing to closely to Buckley’s originals. And his acting was flat, playing Romeo as something of a slacker and not really bringing the passion required – in his ardor for Juliet or his anger at Mercutio’s murder.
Chloe Webb (in the pivotal role as the Nurse), Tom Hennes as Paris (who shined brightly with a lovely falsetto voice on Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol”) and Nick Blaemire as Benvolio (solid supporting acting throughout, he was rewarded with the glorious finale of Leonard Cohen’s majestic “Hallelujah”) were all stand-outs in an outstanding production.
A large part of the reason that Shakespeare’s words and Buckley’s music feed off of each other so seamlessly is due to the yeoman’s work done by musical director and arranger Kris Kukul, who utilizes not only complete Buckley songs, but also snippets interwoven so skillfully it was as though they were written for the play.
And major kudos must also go to choreographer Sonya Tayeh, who brought not only dance per se, but also a bold sense of stylized movement that bestowed a decidedly abstract and perfectly appropriate feel to the production – right up until the end of the play when something went woefully awry. The spastic, herky-jerky movements of the actors were meant to portray anguish, but they pulled focus from what should have been the most focused moment of the show – the final scene.
Yes, there are flaws, but this is the brightest moment on this summer’s Berkshire theater scene. The production only runs through Friday (August 20), so beg, borrow or steal a ticket to one of the final performances if you can.
One thing is certain – we haven’t heard the last of “The Last Goodbye.”
Frank Rizzo’s review in Variety
Michael Eck’s review in The Times Union
Ralph Hammann’s review in Metroland
Larry Murray’s review at BerkshireOnstage.com
Jeffrey Borak’s review in The Berkshire Eagle
Peter Bergman’s review at BlogTheBerkshires.com
An excerpt from Carol King’s review in The Daily Gazette: “[Kelli] Barrett, as Juliet (and I have always believed Shakespeare intended to name the play ‘Juliet and Romeo’), has some extraordinary moments. Her delivery of ‘I Woke up in a Strange Place’ foreshadows both her encounter with Romeo at her parent’s ball and her father’s pronouncement that she will marry Paris. And she is riveting in ‘What Will You Say,’ as she prepares to take the potion given her by the Friar (Jesse Lenat).”