Before the premiere of the Ordway Music Theatre's new million-dollar venture, a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by Terrence Mann and Jerome Korman, Ordway president Kevin McCollum appeared onstage to offer his two cents worth. "The American musical," he said, "is one of the few intrinsic art forms this country has created. The other is the World Wrestling Federation." While we may not yet accord Grave Digger, Wife Beater, et al. the same respect as Broadway spectacles, McCollum's assertion is enough at least to start the sentient theatergoer thinking about aesthetic asylum in Canada. The idea that this might be the fruit of our cultural labors is merely dressing on the turkey.
There is, of course, nothing terribly adventurous about turning Romeo and Juliet into a musical. The play has long been a favorite of composers and librettists for its melodic cadence (and, one suspects, its operatic body count). Broadway, too, has seen its share of Capulets and Montagues, most memorably as the snapping and tapping thugs in West Side Story. What is perhaps most remarkable about Mann and Korman's new adaptation is how thoroughly they manage to bury Shakespeare's words in squealing guitar riffs and saccharine synth pop. At best, their score recalls the aimless lounge posturing of Pulp's This Is Hardcore. At worst, it is the sort of flaccid rock that could only be described as contemporary by someone who has not been near a radio since the mid-Eighties.
Mann, who also directs and adapted the play, begins his Romeo and Juliet on a dissonant note. A monk dressed in Marilyn Manson chic stands with his back to the audience, flogging himself to a bloody pulp. He is bathed in a hellish red glow and surrounded by walls of metal scaffolding that lend the stage the appearance of a very large cage. The industrial aesthetic of Kenneth Foy's scenic design and the self-flagellating friar underscore the production's preoccupation with purification of the flesh. Even before love, death is in the air. The gloomy tableau is finally broken by the arrival of a battalion of dancers, who come skittering across the stage like extras in a kung fu movie.
The oppressive tone set in the opening scene communicates the predestination of the play's tragedy--the lovers are already fortune's fools, or caged songbirds, in this case. It also has the unfortunate effect of muting the play's emotional tenor. After a rather nice number by Lady Capulet (Therese Wilson), her Juliet (Irene Molloy), and the Nurse (Candy Buckley), we are introduced to the Montague crew: Benvolio (Joshua Wade), Romeo (Patrick Wilson), and Mercutio (Joe Wilson Jr.). As though in parody of the inviolate innocence of Juliet, Mercutio puts on a lewd little show of his own around the Queen Mab soliloquy. Here is a fellow for whom love is nothing more than an open arse.
The bawdiness does not last, however, and soon gloom is once again the order of the play. The Capulet masque, so often the lavish set piece of the first act, is orchestrated by choreographer Christopher d'Amboise as a stylized and stilted waltz. It does not help, either, that the lovers, meeting for the first time, seem so unenamored of one another that they might as well be dancing alone. Indeed, Wilson's Romeo is such a bland fellow that he seems noncorporeal next to Juliet. Again, in the famous balcony scene, rendered here as a duet, Molloy so overwhelms poor Romeo in both presence and vocal range that she almost seems to be singing to herself. Finally, Romeo vacates the premises altogether, and Molloy is hoisted atop a moving scaffold to sing a musical rephrasing of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 (what, if anything, it is doing in the middle of Romeo and Juliet remains an open question).
Ironically, the most effective scene between the lovers is one in which neither is present. In lieu of consummating their shared affection onstage, the two retreat behind a billowing sea-green curtain, where body doubles take over for an erotic pas de deux in silhouette. While synthesizers tinkle away in the background, the dancers snake about one another in oblivious ecstasy. But hark! Is it the nightingale or the lark that sings?
It is, unfortunately, an electric guitar wah-wahing us back to the business at hand. Once the sex is done, of course, there is nothing but death. And die they do. The prince returns to survey the carnage and pronounce, "All shall be punished." There is plenty of blame to go around.