From “Wicked” to “Waitress,” female empowerment has been a boon for musical theater. But where those shows veered between sincerely earnest and earnestly sincere, “& Juliet” gleefully goes for broke putting gender on the agenda as it yokes pop milestones from the likes of Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Celine Dion to a girl-power revamp of “Romeo and Juliet.” The hyperactive production is sometimes more enervating than exciting, but doubts are blown out of the water by the lead performances, especially spectacular newcomer Miriam-Teak Lee as Juliet, who doesn’t so much star as set the theater alight.
As Shakespearean re-imaginings go, we have, in theory, been here before, with everything from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” to “Shakespeare in Love.” David West Read’s book, mixing feminist lessons and groan-worthy gags, is a (very) long way from Stoppard. But then, Stoppard never set up storming finishes to almost all twenty-nine numbers from the mindbending back catalog of pop hit guru Max Martin.
It was he who gave Perry her “Teenage Dream” and that’s the tenor of the entire teen-friendly show, which opens with the question: What if Juliet didn’t die after all? That’s the suggestion of Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) who, tired of being sidelined by her pleased-with-himself husband Will Shakespeare (Oliver Tompsett), kicks off a play-within-a-play.
Within moments, Anne has whisked the newly liberated Juliet and her alternately bold and troubled non-binary best friend May (sweet-voiced Arun Blair-Magnat) plus her devoted nurse (Melanie La Barrie, whose comic timing is as strong as her voice) 600 miles to Paris. At a nightclub, May falls for Francois but the latter is under the thumb of his father (a very arch David Bedella). Wildly predictable love tangles immediately ensue, with snapshot scenes cueing a succession of “I want” songs from dreamy to defiant, plus much belting of ballads of self-reproach. The best plot device is sprung shortly before the first-act curtain, when a character no one was expecting shows up and throws a spanner in the works.
Teenage anxieties have powered many a musical, not least the mother-of-all-jukeboxes, “Mamma Mia!,” but “& Juliet” is not in the same league. Where “Mamma Mia” brings its feminist slant to the fore with slow cunning, here, everyone on stage can’t stop talking and singing about it. Which, to be fair, is part of the fun.
Yet for all its crowd-pleasing grafting of 21st century takes on love and identity onto a 16th century story, there’s a problem. Martin’s songs are statements, not stories, and their prime function isn’t drama but a single emotion belted in major vocal workouts. There are high points with well-loved songs given unexpected new arrangements and tone — “I‘m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” is given a completely fresh spin — but the production team knows, deep down, that there is no deep down.
As if terrified we’re going to be bored by one number after another, director Luke Sheppard marshals an all-over-the-shop production for the ADHD generation. Images literal and metaphorical, historical and timeless, flood the giant video screens across the back of Soutra Gilmour’s set, one-part Elizabethan strolling player to two-parts glitz.
Outside of interpolated scenes between Anne and Shakespeare directing the action, the set is forever on the move. Likewise, the superbly drilled ensemble never stop dancing but, like the overused hydraulics, their choreography all seems to express the same fierce defiance, so they hit diminishing returns.
But, and it’s a very big but, the passion in the voices throughout, especially in the stronger second half, saves the day. Supported by Gareth Owen’s first-rate sound design combining stomping power and real clarity, the cast consistently raise not just the temperature but the roof.
Janson, winning the audience over with deft, expertly knowing wit as well as deliciously dark-toned vocals, gets the possibly poisoned chalice of the Celine Dion number “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Slowed right down, and armed, at last, with nothing but a bare stage, Janson unleashes a vocal so triumphant you’re left stunned that she isn’t (yet) a star.
The show belongs, however, to Lee, who strode out of drama school into Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre where she dazzled as a gazelle-like Claire De Loone in “On The Town.” A year in “Hamilton” immediately followed and now this. With both warmth and whipsmart attitude, she glides and gleams through the show knocking out number after number without appearing to break a sweat. Singing the hell out of Britney’s “Roar” convinces the entire auditorium to do just that back to her.
Silly and serious, “& Juliet” wants to have its cake and to eat it too. Yet for all its many flaws, it’s hard not to cave in to its determination to add some thought to its undeniably feel-good factor. In that sense, it’s not a million miles from the runaway Brit hit “Six.” But where that show sells out a 353-seat off-West End house with young ticket buyers paying low prices, “& Juliet” will need major marketing to woo audiences beyond its youthful demographic. If anyone can sell it, this cast can.