*You know the story but spoilers ahead*
“Holy freak out, The Last Goodbye is hot! Dirty sexy and Jeff’s music suits it to a T.” That was my gut response and intermission tweet from the Old Globe on opening night. It was an hour into the re-mastered Romeo & Juliet story transformed by Jeff Buckley’s music into a heart-pounding, testosterone-driven assault on adolescence and love. Michael Kimmel’s adaptation may not have retained Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech (one of my favorites in the play), but he does give the character Buckley’s metal driven “Eternal Life” to end the first act after he dies. And that’s tradeoff enough for me.
Hale Appleman, who plays Mercutio, delivers the prophetic lyric with such charismatic defiance and raw vocal energy that you’re still trying to wrap your head around the fact that he’s singing this amazing rocker ode and the guy’s just died. You might even think you’d imagined it if you hadn’t seen him knifed before your eyes.
Kimmel continues to mess with death later at the tomb when Romeo (Jay Armstrong Johnson) thinks that Juliet (Talisa Friedman) is dead and drinks poison to join her. As Shakespeare wrote it, he dies, and when Juliet awakens to find him dead, she kills herself with his dagger.
But in Kimmel’s adaptation, Romeo drinks the poison, Juliet wakes up, and the two have a final scene together before he dies and she kills herself. It was so shocking and unexpected I could heard gasps from the audience when she sat up. It’s a bold departure from the story and I’d say that even if you know it’s coming, in the moment, it will still stun you.
Is that taking too much liberty with Shakespeare’s text? For some, maybe. But it feels somehow appropriate for this sexually-charged, not-so-subtle version of the tale. It’s an R&J that young people will flock to – some driven to see if the play can possibly contain Buckley’s music and meet his fans’ expectations; others because word of mouth will surely be strong. Let’s face it, sex sells, and this beautiful, sleek cast is a head-turning seductive bunch.
Propelled forward by Alex Timbers’ insistent staging, Sonya Tayeh’s explicit choreography and Kate Waters & Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum’s athletic fight sequences, the actors ride this story fast and hard, fully aware that the journey of these two star-crossed lovers will be cut short in a mere two hours’ time.
The look is part gothic romance, part 90s leather-clad underworld. The location is simply listed as Verona, sans time period. Within this vision, stone arches part to reveal an onstage band led by musical director Kris Kukal, with front man Adam Cochran channeling Buckley’s presence in the raging musical grid. But a solitary twang of his guitar in the musical soundscape offers just as much wracking emotion as any of the big numbers.
And what of Romeo and Juliet? Friedman and Johnson make a convincing pair, handling the text with resolute youthful intensity. Johnson also masters Buckley’s crazy vocal range, popping out falsetto riffs that ramp up Romeo’s tortured angst while paying homage to Buckley at the same time.
Yet it’s tricky, this melding of Shakespeare and Buckley. Some scenes transition between music and text beautifully but others lack finesse. Romeo and Juliet’s duets “All Flowers in Time” and “The Last Goodbye” are two examples of the former but Capulet (Daniel Oreskes) singing “Corpus Christi Carol” was a mismatch from the get-go. While it does serve to cover the scene change it’s odd that it’s sung by Juliet’s father; the same father who earlier jumps up and down in a temper tantrum like a gangster from the Bronx when Juliet refuses to marry Paris.
Tonye Patano also seems to be dropped in from another place and time, making the much abbreviated appearance of the nurse more reminiscent of the television sitcom maids of the second half of the twentieth century. Even Broadway veteran Stephen Bogardus falls into a sing-song version of Friar Laurence that feels a little too Mr. Musical to fit with the overall style of the show.
And though the end of act one left me on a high at intermission, The Last Goodbye’s second act could use another pass to smooth out its rough edges. Then the final “Halleluiah” would have the heartbreaking impact the show so obviously intends.
Shakespeare in LA
THE LAST GOODBYE
Sept. 22 – Nov. 3, 2013
The Old Globe
1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park
San Diego, CA 92101
Tickets: (619) 23-GLOBE or www.theoldglobe.org