Forget Mamma Mia!, musical episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, or (dare I say it?) even Buffy’s “Once More, with Feeling”, there’s a new kid in town. Well, I say new — this is a love story that’s been some 424 years in the making. Taking the words of The Immortal Bard, & Juliet is described as a “pop-star crossed musical” and definitely lives up to that accolade.
For those who’ve grown tired of thumbing through dusty pages of school textbooks and analysing the subject of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story of Montagues and Capulets is getting a fresh lick of pink paint.
Just like Netflix is adding to the story of Jesse Pinkman with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, & Juliet continues the tale of these doomed lovers and picks up Juliet’s story with a “what if?” scenario.
Opening & Juliet‘s world premiere on the rainy streets of the Manchester Opera House might not be the most conventional place to start, but with a West End tour already planned before the end of 2019, I’m ‘confident’ (Demi Lovato pun) that the cast and crew are about to hit the headlines in a big way.
While a Romeo and Juliet sequel probably has legs enough to stand on its own, & Juliet takes that idea and rolls it in glitter. The legendary Max Martin provides music and lyrics for his first musical production. Martin’s talents speak for themselves considering he’s written 22 Billboard Hot 100 #1 hits. If & Juliet is a sign of what’s to come, he could be onto a winner.
In 2019’s female-first society, Will Shakespeare is quickly put in his place by Anne Hathaway — no, not that Anne Hathaway. Martin’s play unfolds as a war of the words between Shakespeare and his disgruntled wife. The duo eventually settle on rewriting the end of Romeo and Juliet if the leading lady didn’t take her own life.
Staring off in fair Verona, we pick up with a downtrodden Juliet lamenting the loss of her lover and destined to be shipped off to a nunnery for disobeying her parents. Sadly, this isn’t going to be Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Lead actor Miriam-Teak Lee is a shining star of the ensemble and rightly takes centre stage as Juliet. Leaving the theatre, it’s easy to imagine Lee rocketing to the top of the charts with her own album within the next few years. Offering some genuine moments of goosebump-raising singing, Lee sings her way through the repertoire with ease.
Elsewhere, Cassidy Janson is adorable and emotive in equal measure. Showing the more tragic side of Shakespeare’s life, Hathaway’s story is like it’s been written by the man himself for one of his tragedies. Janson already steals enough scenes with her stage presence, but this is topped by her heartfelt performance of Celine Dione’s “That’s The Way It Is”.
I remember studying Carol Ann Duffy’s “Second Best Bed” poem for GCSE, so there were some PTSD flashbacks to high school as Janson explains Hathaway’s heartache at feeling she’s an unappreciated wife to the famous wordsmith.
Elsewhere, Oliver Tompsett, Jordan Luke Gage, and David Bedella, play the de facto villains of the piece as Shakespeare, Romeo, and Lance Du Bois, The trio stray into douchebag territory and give the impression of all men being trash. Championing female empowerment, this really works with the message at the heart of & Juliet.
Melanie La Barrie provides some brilliant comic relief as Nurse — reprising her role from Liverpool Everyman’s production of Romeo and Juliet. A particular highlight is her standout performance of Pink’s “F*ckin’ Perfect”. Showing & Juliet at its very best, you could hear the odd sniffle around the crowd as the audience struggled to hold back the tears.
Rounding off the talented troupe, Tim Mahendran is Juliet’s potential new beau as François Du Bois, aka Frankie the Boy. Frankie is yet another kid trapped under the tyrannical rule of their family and looking for love in all the wrong places.
Aside from those we already know, the relationship between Mahendran’s Frankie and Arun Blair-Mangat’s May is in danger of outshining Romeo and Juliet themselves. With an empowering speech about acceptance and defying the gender norms, & Juliet doesn’t feel the need to answer any questions over Blair-Mangat’s casting. It’s a breath of fresh air and fits perfectly with the musical’s middle finger to archaic stereotypes.
The real pull of & Juliet is its eclectic mix of modern pop songs sung by the talented cast. From Katy Perry’s “Roar” to Britney’s “Baby One More Time”, there’s a stirring rendition of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and an ensemble performance of the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” that brings the house down.
We won’t ruin the ending here, but just like Anne Hathaway tries to rewrite her husband’s work, there might not be the typical fairytale farewell for & Juliet. Even though the women of the show aren’t always destined to come out on top, they go full Destiny’s Child and prove they ‘don’t need no man’ to get there.
I’m not ashamed to say you can usually find me on the elliptical at the gym while listening to pop remixes at full volume. This means a ‘remix’ of Shakespeare was always going to be a hit with me. Even if you can’t hold a tune, singing & Juliet‘s praises isn’t hard to do. The only problem is, you might not be able to stop.
As we wait patiently for the show’s official album to make it onto Apple Music, I already find myself booking another pair of tickets!
[Featured Image: & Juliet Facebook]