The really bad British musical — a truly unique phenomenon, as veterans of the unforgettable likes of “Which Witch,” “Bernadette” and “Lautrec,” among numerous others, will know — resurfaces with a vengeance in “Romeo and Juliet, the Musical,” an Anglicized French import of such mind-numbing ineptitude that one only wishes it were that little bit worse so it could qualify as a camp classic. No such luck. Having spawned countless ballets, various films and at least two remarkable operas, Shakespeare’s play here succumbs to the reductio ad absurdum of (mostly) throughsung Euroshlock that delivers its own sonorous epitaph right near the start: “If you think you’ve seen it all,” we are told, “then you had better think again.”
Thought isn’t something this “Romeo and Juliet” demands much of, choosing instead to canter through the time-honored story with somewhat less acumen than might be encountered in the Classic Comics version. Everyone is bound to have a favorite moment from the numerous eye-opening ones on offer — Juliet announcing, “Here goes,” right before she imbibes the potion (her pronouncement elicited an audible snort from my colleague on the Telegraph), or this from Romeo to Juliet after their love is finally consummated: “It was the night of my life. Thanks.” (“Typical man,” whispered my female companion.) Given this show’s provenance in a separate, apparently successful French production, one has to wonder about remarks like Juliet’s snappish “What sort of name is Paris” — the answer: The capital of France, you silly almost-15-year-old — while the second act gets off to no less clangorous a start than the first: “The Capulets are people, too.” As Romeo might say, thanks.
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Some talented people have leant their name to this imbroglio, which seems doubly sad since the musical is unlikely to be around long enough to swell anyone’s bank balance. David Freeman, the director, and his designer, David Roger, have collaborated on three or four of the most memorable opera productions in my experience (more often than not for the now-defunct Opera Factory), so it’s dispiriting, to put it mildly, to find them going down with the proverbial ship. Roger’s designs surrender the occasional witty art historical flourish — Botticelli, Chagall, you name it — to some sliding scaffolding that makes it look as if the whole thing is taking place on a jungle gym. (The Capulets’ ball incongruously evokes the orgy sequence from “Eyes Wide Shut,” masks and statuary and all.) Every so often, courtesy Durham Marenghi’s lighting, the stage simply goes dark, as if to suggest that someone in Verona forgot to pay the electricity bill.
Baz Luhrmann’s inventive screen take on the same tale asserted the supreme elasticity of Shakespeare, but that ability to speak down the centuries to all generations — and in a contemporary vernacular — doesn’t excuse lyrics from Don Black and a book from Freeman and Black that are almost risibly generic. Though the Verona on view looks pretty flat to me, the language of the show seems obsessed with mountains one minute, rivers the next (“These Are My Rivers,” a first-act song, finds its second-act complement with “Where Rivers Keeps Flowing”). Nor does “Romeo and Juliet, the Musical” let go of a rhyme it likes: “Men, men are fools/like stubborn mules,” gets a workout worthy of, well, a stubborn mule.
The score is the work of one Gerard Presgurvic, a Frenchman who, a rather ripe program bio informs us, “now only lives for this sort of musical beamed at an international audience.” (One gathers that he is turning to “Gone With the Wind” next.) Malheureusement, soupy is soupy in any language, and Presgurvic’s string-heavy lushness does itself no favors juxtaposed with sudden spasms of Europop that send the cast hurtling about the stage in a series of confrontations that aren’t nearly as frightening as the area just outside the Piccadilly Theater on a Saturday night.
In context, it seems almost pointless to name the cast, since they will all resurface in better shows (or, at the very least, on “Pop Idol”), and probably sooner rather than later. Suffice it to say that the musical’s “star” name, if there is one, is Jane McDonald, playing the Nurse, a performer whose big break came five years ago aboard a cruise ship. (No, I am not joking.) McDonald does well by one of the show’s better songs, “And Now She Is in Love,” which serves more or less the same function here as “Hello Young Lovers” does in “The King and I.” (The similarity ends there.) But even she succumbs when singing to the same body language as everyone else — hands clutched to the chest for emphasis, her eyes closed. That last tendency, it’s fair to say, will be one to which auds at “Romeo and Juliet, the Musical” will quickly relate.