Romeo & Juliet
Adapted from William Shakespeare. Directed by Annie DiMartino. Musical Direction by Carol Taubl. Stage manager: by Mallory Pellegrino. Lighting design: Daniel Gookin. Student assistant stage managers: Ally Kaechele and Jennie Davies.
Summer wouldn’t be over without a glorious, anything-goes burst of Shake-It-Up Shakespeare, the summer youth ensemble program run by Long Wharf Theater for the past several years. The shows merge Shakespeare scripts (or large chunks of them, anyway) with modern music sensibilities. With serious lighting and sound design and running times in the two-and-a-half-hour range, these are not minor endeavors. They push hard, sing strong, and hammer you with earnest, well-rehearsed high-school-age professionalism.
One area where Shake-It-Up-Shakespeare doesn’t shake it up is in the casting of lead roles. The male stars are invariably the sons of the company’s music director Carol Taubl. This time, Jeremiah Taubl is Romeo, James Taubl is Benvolio (a role which has been cut a lot less than the other supporting roles in the play, giving Romeo’s cousin more stage time than Juliet) and Sam Taubl as a tightly wound Tybalt.
A little Taubl goes a long way for me. I feel that Romeo could get his moony-eyed points across with several fewer songs. But it’s those songs, rather than the ubiquitous Taubls, which are the biggest distinction of Shake-It-Up Shakespeare shows. The creative team finds over a dozen modern pop songs which they feel correspond to the play’s themes, then insert full renditions of these songs into the drama, using a live band (headed by Taubl matriarch Carol on keyboards) and arrangements which deftly play to the young actors’ vocal strengths.
When a particularly well known song such as Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising” or Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (in a slow, balladic arrangement similar to Fountains of Wayne’s cover version) or The Lumineers’ “I Belong to You” (replete with “heys” and “hos”), I’ve noticed that this can be jarring for the audience, whose audible reactions can include snickers and guffaws. But when there are songs well-known to the cast but not as familiar to their parents (because, face it, 90 percent of the people in the auditorium are related to someone in the show)—songs like Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” or Taylor Swift’s “22,” some real dramatic traction may be gained.
For one thing, a lot of the performer have more affinity for the songs than they do for the Shakespearean dialogue. All of singers are impressive, and the band is neatly organized to allow for a lot of guest players (including Taubl boys on violin). The setting is similar to past Shake-It-Up Shakespeares I’ve seen, with a central bandstand, a scaffoldy tower off to the side (which in this case serves as Juliet’s balcony) and clearly marked playing areas at right, left and center.
Do such productions overreach? Of course they do—are you kidding? The kids (and their adult enablers, director Annie DiMartino and musical director Carol Taubl) lay on the pop and the sharply (if cleanly) condensed Shakespeare. Then they also pile on outrageous directorial concepts. I’ll quote from the program: “Our production takes the familiar tale of star-crossed lovers and recasts the families in terms of social class—the Montagues are from impoverished Appalachia and the Capulets live in the Gatsby-esque glamor of wealth and privilege.” No matter that the cultures they describe are geographically specific and hundreds of miles apart. The production makes no attempt to explain how the stereotypical flappers and stereotypical hillbillies they’ve devised could end up at the same costume party, let alone meet in the streets of Verona every day. Other than a few bluesy interludes, the income disparity isn’t particularly played up in the sets and costumes, let alone the accents or attitudes.
Sometimes you don’t know where to look. But if you think I’m describing a train wreck, I’m not. It’s kind of the opposite. This summer program seems to be bursting with creativity, concepts, cockamamie schemes and yes, Taubls.
But, to me, that’s the joy of these Shake-It-Up Shakespeare endeavors. They might as well be called Throw-It-Against-a-Wall-and-See-What-Sticks Shakespeare. I came away happy to have seen the merits of a female Mercutio (Lilly Holmes, shifting easily from glittery jazz dancer to tomboy) and the demerits of a too-violent father Capulet (Henry Tobelman, whose violent physical rages, which included ducking his daughter’s head in a bathtub and slapping his wife repeatedly, seemed superfluous to the character’s already severe verbal outbursts).
Personally, I welcome extreme interpretations of classics; they don’t displace whatever a “classic” version might be, and some leeway is required when your cast, buy design, is young and pop-driven (and overwhelmingly suburban and white, but that’s another story).
If I have a big issue with this rendition of Romeo & Juliet, it’s not the Appalachian/Jazz Age dichotomy, or that overdone Creedence tune, or the tyranny of Taubls. It’s the imbalance of tragedy and romance. Much is made of death, and grief, and murderous encounters; those scenes (and songs) are drawn out to extreme length. But the love scenes are brief, or concealed, or underdone, or left out altogether, and the songs which accompany them are uncomplicated and light. I totally get that anger is easier, and funner, for young folks to act than mushy scenes. But this is Romeo and Juliet, and with so many interesting problem-solving choices already holding the show together, more effort should have been taken to make sure that the titular lovers really appeared to be in love. Luckily, there’s lots else to admire: the energy, the stellar singing voices, the ensemble feel, and, oh yeah, the Shakespeare.