“The Last Goodbye,” a new tuner that sets the music of the late songwriter Jeff Buckley to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” comes across as a notion in search of a vision. In its premiere at the Williamstown Theater Festival, the show is a confused, careless and under-conceived work that would require a major do-over if it were to get out of the Massachusetts Berkshires. (The production has enhancement money from some Broadway producers.)
Buckley’s music has a richly textured, dreamy and angst-filled feel that sometimes — though not always — echoes the dramatic points of the Bard’s tale of doomed rebel lovers. But the contempo songs by the ’90s singer-songwriter (who died at 30 in 1997) are by themselves not enough to lift this strained rock-theater wannabe.
Unlike “Spring Awakening,” in which the tunes are created for the dramatic moment, or “American Idiot,” in which the staging is propelled from the songs, “The Last Goodbye” shoehorns Buckley’s music into the text. Sometimes it’s a close fit, such as in “Forget Her,” about Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline, or Paris’ haunting “Corpus Christi Carol,” sung at Juliet’s tomb.
But often it’s just misguided: “Everybody Here Wants You” is about how everyone has the hots for Juliet. Or just wrong: When Juliet takes the poison, her thoughts really should not be about getting back at her parents, as it is in “What Will You Say?”
Muddling the mix even further is the strange world in which adapter-helmer Michael Kimmel sets the piece, one that has neither sense nor style, just the illusion of edginess in Michael Brown’s grungy, tattered urban set and disconnected choreography by Sonya Tayeh (TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”) that is more annoying than illuminating.
Some of the characterizations are simply bizarre, and seemingly lifted from bad reality shows: Juliet’s Nurse (Chloe Webb) looks like an escapee from “Jersey Shore,” skewing the special relationship between the nurse and her ward, while Merle Dandridge’s nouveau-bitch take on Lady Capulet has a “Housewives of Verona County” air. And Jesse Lenat’s Friar seems to be half-fried on something (we first meet him wasted on the street, which would hardly make him a credible spiritual adviser for the local nobility).
Much of the odd goings-on might be mere distractions if the leads were compelling. But Damon Daunno’s Romeo is an uninteresting pup, and his speech and vocal chops are unsteady. Kelli Barrett’s Juliet has a strong vocal presence, but her character is like one of the spoiled daughters in “Keeping Up With Kardashians.” There’s little emotional investment in this great romance.
Some supporting players command attention. Best in show are Jo Lampert’s dynamic Mercutio, as a sort of “Anybodys” on steroids, doing a killer “Eternal Life”; Ashley Robinson’s fiercely sung Tybalt; and Tom Hennes’ Paris, who beautifully croons “Corpus Christi Carol.”