Review - Max Martin musical & Juliet at the Shaftesbury Theatre
The biggest hit, by far, of the current Broadway season, so far, is Moulin Rouge, a compilation musical that folds extracts from over 70 pop songs, from multiple sources, into telling a story set in the eponymous Parisian nightclub. Now, the new musical & Juliet that has just received its world premiere in the West End after a try-out run in Manchester, tries to replicate some of the same formula, only using a more economical track listing of some 30 songs. It is also likewise set in Paris - and yes, the Moulin Rouge and its windmill are even referenced in an onstage set model, too, plus the use of similarly prominent title signage.
But this time the songs are heard in more complete (if not necessarily as complex) versions than the songs in Moulin Rouge, though there's a similar relentless and restless forward propulsion to how they're integrated into the plot by David West Read's book, which has Shakespeare (with a big assist from his wife Anne Hathaway) re-writing Romeo and Juliet in a way that keeps both of them alive - and gives Juliet a lot more agency. It also throws in a new gay subplot for good measure.
But this is no Kiss Me, Kate, the 1949 classic which gave a backstage musical spin to a troubled out-of-town production of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, set to one of Cole Porter's most scintillating scores; nor is it West Side Story, which already adapted Romeo and Juliet to the streets of 1950s New York to Leonard Bernstein's sinewy, brassy music.
Here, instead, all the songs originate from a single songwriting source, the Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin, whose songs for the likes of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Celine Dion, NSYNC and Justin Timberlake, amongst others, have placed him behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon in achieving the global record for number one singles on the Billboard charts (22, to McCartney's 32 and Lennon's 26).
That ensures a high level of familiarity for pop fans (and even me, who doesn't follow the genre much); like the songs of ABBA that kicked off the penchant for folding existing pop catalogues into new stories with Mamma Mia!, there's already a lot of identification and love for material that has been impossible to avoid in popular culture.
And this likeable and sometimes spectacular production - directed by Luke Sheppard and choreographed by Jennifer Weber with vigour and discipline, gives them a full-bodied and full-blooded outing. Frequently resembling a series of pop videos come to life - thanks to performance platforms that come out of the floor, or benches that take on an aerial life of their own in Soutra Gilmour's sets, aided by Andrzej Goulding's dazzling projections - it is performed with a glinting knowingness and powerful pop theatre voices.
The company is led by the extraordinary Miriam-Teak Lee in the title role of Juliet, who brings a sizzling presence, incredible vocals and moves to turn her into a force of nature. There's also powerful vocal work from two of our best pop theatre performers, Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson, as William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, and likeable support from Jordan Luke Gage as Romeo, Melanie La Barrie as Juliet's Nurse and Arun Blair-Mangat and Tim Mahendran as the gay couple.
A popular hit made from popular hits has been born.
& Juliet tickets are available now.
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