The two modern interpretations of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” — that is, versions that set the timeless love story in modern times—that spring most easily to mind are “West Side Story,” the 1951 Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim musical and, for a less cultured audience, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, “Romeo + Juliet.”
The first was itself a classic, perhaps impacting modern society in a way the original play did in Shakespeare’s time, and will live on in memory as among the five or six greatest musicals of all time.
The second was a relative misfire. While the original text remained generally intact, the plot details were carelessly rummaged with and religious imagery seemingly force-fed to the audience for little or no reason. It goes without saying that any producer would be lucky to replicate the success of “West Side Story,” which is why so many Shakespeare plays have landed on Broadway transplanted from their native settings. But there is risk in this endeavor in that, rather than being a reinvigorating reinvention, the result might just seem silly.
The latest to challenge these odds is a new Broadway revival of “Romeo and Juliet”–the last one since 1977–directed by David Leveaux, who revived “Nine” in 2003. At first glance, this version seems to verge on ridiculous, plagued by the same excesses that trouble any transformation of a Shakespeare play into a modern epic—that is, the fact that the Bard’s words and our times simply don’t match, leaving only the option to heap on the modern until the classic chokes under its weight.
The stark, nearly empty stage is peremptorily infringed upon by set pieces which seem to have no reason to exist—an oxidized bell that hangs over the stage throughout but is only rung once, and then only for a few seconds; long, thin burners that release seemingly inopportune jets of fire at insignificant moments in the play; sand spilling onstage from the wings (why?). Romeo’s entrance only reinforces this impression. When the handsome Montague, played by Orlando Bloom in his stage debut, rockets onstage (oh, how the audience swooned!), it’s on a fully loaded motorcycle that squeals, roars, and puffs carbon monoxide up into the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (While others watched the dreamy Bloom shake his hair from his helmet, I wondered if this was entirely legal.) And that’s not all—Montagues and Capulets fight by whipping chains at each other; the Capulet ball is now a strange cross between a rave and an African drum circle; Friar Lawrence is a barefoot hippie in a sweatshirt—just listing these things is exhausting.
But, surprisingly—and this is the key word, for I am, indeed, hugely surprised by what I am about to tell you—I enjoyed this production immensely. Who can say why this guilty pleasure was so much more pleasurable than guilty? It could be that Condola Rashad, fresh off a Tony nomination for her role in “A Trip to Bountiful,” plays Juliet with a kind of excited wonder to which more recent, dour actresses haven’t come close. It could be Corey Hawkins as a poetic Tybalt, Conrad Kemp as a lively Benvolio that strangely brings to mind Mark Cohen from “Rent,” the indefatigable Chuck Cooper as a Lord Capulet who goes from jolly to terrifying in seconds flat, or it could even—sigh—be Orlando Bloom, who, save for a few line flubs, wasn’t really so bad after all. (His chemistry with Ms. Rashad left a little to be desired, though—their kisses were so long they felt almost like parodies of themselves.) But maybe it would be easier to attribute the success of the new “Romeo and Juliet” more generally to its brilliant, biracial cast.
For as in “West Side Story,” the Montagues and Capulets are divided by race—the Montagues Caucasian, the Capulets African-American—but one of the great things about this cast is that they don’t let the director’s conceits overwhelm what’s of true importance—the story. Sure, the “race war” aspect implies some underlying issues in our culture, and “Romeo and Juliet” in modern times has proven successful before. But the fact is, William Shakespeare wrote the best version of this play ever produced more than 515 years ago. The closer a performance gets to that version, the better it is. Simple as that.