Musical numbers: “Opening,” “Where’s Romeo,” “O Brawling Love,” “Capulet Women’s Trio,” “Queen Mab,” “Ball,” “Balcony,” “Friar’s Song,” “Shall I Compare Thee?,” “Wedding,” “Amen,” “Opening (Act II),” “Mercutio’s Death Dance,” “Juliet’s Prayer,” “Back Foolish Tears,” “Shadow Pas de Deux,” “Mistress Minion, ” “Nurse’s Counsel,” “Come Vial,” “Passacaglia,” “Romeo in the Tomb,” “Juliet Awakens,” “Glooming Peace.”
The course of true love may never run smooth, but rarely has the ride been as rough as Terrence Mann and Jerome Korman’s musical adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is making its world premiere at the Ordway Music Theater. Poor, dead Shakespeare is given due credit for his tale of star-crossed love, of course, but this is clearly Mann and Korman’s show, and they deliver a pop music score that struggles in vain to match the lyricism of the Bard’s language. It is , perhaps, a case of ambition overleaping aptitude.
To be fair, there are moments when the score complements the timeworn story nicely. Mercutio’s oratory on the fairy Queen Nab, for instance, is delivered as a corrupted gospel number, with plenty of hip wiggling and purring from lithe chorus dancers. The erotic tableau strikes the right note for the moment; Mercutio is, after all, the obscene and cynical inverse of Romeo, and it makes perfect sense that he would mock his friend’s devotion to the religion of love with a ritual of carnality. Alas, it is one of the few scenes in which the music is not competing with the actors for our attention.
Rather than settling on a single musical milieu, Mann and Korman choose to meander between familiar Claude Michel-Schonberg-style melodies and the sort of syrupy soft rock made unpopular by Kenny Loggins in the mid-’80s. The effect, unfortunately, is a sonic morass of snarling electric guitars and warbling synthesizers that tends to drown out whatever lies beneath.
The fair Verona in which Mann and Korman lay their scene is delineated in Kenneth Foy’s design scheme by an austere bulwark of metal scaffolding that looks like an enormous bird cage. The industrial aesthetic, while visually distinct, strikes an uneasy discord with the tone of the play’s early scene, especially during the lavish Capulet masque. Eschewing potential mise-en-scene fun, choreographer Christopher d’Amboise orchestrates a somber dance number in which darkly clad chorus members lope about like restless spirits. Young love is in bloom, but already this self-contained world is tainted with the hint of death.
As in so many productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” good Mercutio threatens to steal the show. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Joe Wilson Jr. as the swaggering, profane rake makes Patrick Wilson’s Romeo seem an anemic bore. We are meant to focus on the handsome and unprepossessing Romeo throughout much of the first act , but it is not until Mercutio is dispatched in a long but cleverly choreographed sword fight that Wilson finally catches our eye.
With Mercutio gone, however, the play rightfully belongs to Juliet. As the vestal virgin, Irene Molloy proves both a capable actor and a fine vocalist, especially so during “Shall I Compare Thee?,” a solo love song based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Perhaps as it should be, she also overpowers Romeo during their balcony scene duet. Juliet is, of course, the sun, and Romeo a mere pilgrim, come to worship at love’s temple. When the two lovers do finally get down to business, Mann’s production hits its imaginative climax: a pas de deux played out in silhouette behind a billowing green bedroom curtain. It is a very nice image indeed, and were it not for the electric guitars still raising a clatter in the background, it would be well worth lingering upon.
The test of any “Romeo and Juliet” is whether we are made to hope, despite our foreknowledge of the play’s outcome, that the lovers might find some escape clause in fortune’s sad script. But by the final mournful dirge of the Ordway’s production, the denouement seems a mere footnote to a predestined tragedy. It is an unsatisfying and cynical note upon which to end a paean to youth and love.