Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Last Goodbye
Creator and adaptor Michael Kimmel noticed how well, he thought, rock singer Jeff Buckley's music fit the tone of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and he's right about the fit. Even though the musical uses Shakespeare's text, Buckley's music and lyrics provide a contrast rather than jar. And, Ken Travis' sound design allows audiences to hear every word, a substantial achievement when you're working with singers amplified over a rock band.
What impresses me even more, however, is the way Mr. Kimmel edited the Shakespeare text from more than three hours to a crisp two hours that includes sixteen songs. Necessarily, the musical's book is a Cliffs Notes version, but Mr. Kimmel has worked in all of the important scenes and many of the famous lines from the play. These famous lines can produce a "Shakespeare wrote that?" reaction from the audience, but they serve as a reminder of The Last Goodbye's value. Could Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein have served as an uncredited dramaturg?
The Globe had originally scheduled a musical version of The Honeymooners for this slot and had to scramble when that production fell through. They enlisted director Alex Timbers, perhaps best known for youth-oriented productions such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the recent smash Here Lies Love. And they probably crossed their fingers and toes and hoped that the Globe's (older) audience would tolerate a young upstart.
They needn't have worried. Mr. Timbers' staging is decidedly traditional, eschewing a lot of rock 'n' roll posturing and fluidly using Christopher Barreca's stone arches to place scenes throughout the space. It's Shakespeare, after all, so scenic elements need only be suggested. And he's enlisted Kate Waters and her assistant, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, to stage some dandy fight scenes.
The nontraditional elements come from Jennifer Moeller's leather-heavy costume design (though the star-crossed lovers look exactly as you'd think), Sonya Tayeh's energetic and plentiful choreography (Ms. Tayeh has choreographed for "So You Think You Can Dance" and it shows), and Justin Townsend's lighting design that mixes lots of shadows with sudden bursts of rock-concert lights-in-your-face.
Having seen Jay Armstrong Johnson in Hands on a Hardbody at La Jolla Playhouse, I knew that he had a fine voice and the right look for Romeo, but I also figured that acting was not his strong suit. He surprised me. His Romeo is callow when needed, but gains heft and depth as the play progresses. And he delivers Shakespeare's lines as if they were meant to be spoken, not read.
Mr. Johnson is nicely paired with Talisa Friedman as Juliet. Ms. Friedman also has a nice voice and the right look, and she soars in Juliet's solo numbers. But the most effective numbers in the show are the duets, and our Romeo and Juliet display chemistry to spare, both in those duets and in the plentiful love scenes.
The supporting cast is mostly stuck with being angry and prone to attack (and Mr. Timbers could certainly help each cast member to become more distinctive should The Last Goodbye have a life after this production). Two stand out, however, and they are the two you'd imagine. Stephen Bogardus makes Friar Lawrence an entirely believable trusted confident for both Romeo and Juliet, and Tonye Patano (so good as the principal character in Ruined here a couple of years ago), nearly steals every scene she is in. Whether she should have stolen them is another matter.
The music is not all Mr. Buckley's. His famous cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is performed as well. I'll not spoil it by telling you anything more, but, as you'd think, it is at a moving moment.
Full of surprises, The Last Goodbye succeeds beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
The Last Goodbye through November 3, at the Old Globe, in San Diego's Balboa Park at 1363 Old Globe Way. Ticket prices begin at $29 and may be ordered by visiting or calling the theatre's box office, at (619) 23-GLOBE
The Old Globe presents The Last Goodbye. Conceived and Adapted by Michael Kimmel, with Music and Lyrics by Jeff Buckley. Directed by Alex Timbers, with Choreography by Sonya Tayeh, Orchestrations, Music Direction and Arrangements by Kris Kukul, Scenic Design by Christopher Barreca, Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller,Lighting Design by Justin Townsend, Sound Design by Ken Travis, and with Text Consultant, Ian Hersey, Fight Director, Kate Waters, and Associate Fight Director, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum.
The cast includes, Jay Armstrong Johnson (Romeo), Talisa Friedman (Juliet), Hale Appleman (Mercutio), Stephen Bogardus (Friar Laurence), Nancy Snow Carr (Lady Montague), Shannon Cochran (Lady Capulet), Brandon Gill (Benvolio), Bryan Scott Johnson (Montague), Eric Morris (Paris), Daniel Oreskes (Capulet), Tonye Patano (Nurse), Wallace Smith (Prince) and Jeremy Woodard (Tybalt) with James Brown III, Billy Bustamante, Drew Foster, Adam Perry, Steve Schepis and Nik Walker (Ensemble), Megan Carmitchel (Additional Vocals), Bradley Gibson (Swing) and Adam Cochran (Band Singer).