If you have a favourite pop song from the last 25 years, chances are it was written or produced by Max Martin. The Swedish pop powerhouse has collaborated with dozens of the music industry’s biggest artists: Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Nsync, Katy Perry, Celine Dion, Ariana Grande and The Weekend, to name but a few. Over 30 of the music maverick’s biggest bangers form the soundtrack to the new musical & Juliet, a wondrously witty and woke new take on the fate of Shakespeare’s traditionally tragic heroine. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. Oh baby, baby it really does.
The show begins on a mostly empty stage, a few pieces of the set lie scattered about and a retro jukebox sits stage right, as a troupe of performers slowly enter the space and start warming up and chatting excitedly. It’s the opening night of William Shakespeare’s (Rob Mills) latest play, Romeo and Juliet and his wife Anne (Amy Lehpamer) has some suggestions for the ending. After a playful exchange of ideas, cleverly using the song ‘I Want It That Way’ (get it?), Anne seizes Shakespeare’s quill, begins to rewrite Juliet’s fate and this fabulous show bursts into life.
After discovering Romeo’s many past relationships at his funeral and, under threat of being sent to a nunnery by her uncaring parents, Juliet (Lorinda May Merrypor) decides to get out of Verona and head to Paris with her bestie May (Jesse Dutlow), her nurse Angélique (Casey Donovan) and friend April (who is actually Anne, having written herself into the story much to the annoyance of Shakespeare).
They crash a party being held for young nobleman Francois (Yashith Fernando) and that’s where things start to get complicated. Romances blossom, past relationships are reignited and friendships are tested. Not to mention the fact that (spoiler alert) Romeo (Blake Appelqvist) comes back from the dead just to complicate things even further.
& Juliet may not have an original score (with the exception of ‘One More Try’), but this is a truly original musical and that’s thanks to the hilarious and heartfelt book by David West Read and Luke Sheppard’s dynamic direction. The songs haven’t just been shoehorned into the plot with minimal thought. While some numbers are played self-referentially for laughs, the majority are incorporated with great care and carry a surprising emotional weight. On the surface this piece may appear as frothy fairyfloss entertainment; underneath there is a quiet revolution at play.
I can’t think of another big commercial musical in which several lead characters are non-binary, gender fluid and/or openly queer. The character of May struggles with being accepted for who they are throughout the show and this storyline is handled with delicacy and dramatic importance. Romeo is revealed to have had relationships with women and men, while Francois has romantic feelings for both Juliet and May.
These elements are never rammed down the audience’s throat; they are simply a part of who these characters are and how this new take on the classic story is being told for a new generation. & Juliet unabashedly celebrates love in all its iterations and raises up traditionally marginalised voices so they can be heard in all their full-throated glory.
And what voices they are! Every single role is perfectly cast and they belt out hit after hit with breathtaking skill and unique style. This cast is stacked with an exciting and diverse range of new talent led by Lorinda May Merrypor as Juliet. This is a massive leading role and relative newcomer Merrypor gives it absolutely everything. From the moment she starts singing ‘…Baby One More Time’ at the top of the show you know she is a force of nature and Merrypor expertly crafts Juliet’s journey with guts, humour and heart; this is an instantly memorable knockout performance.
The more seasoned members of the cast are delightful. Donovan as Angelique and Hayden Tee as her lover Lance are fabulously camp, Mills is charming and cocky as Shakespeare and Lehpamer brings a delectable madcap energy as Anne/April. Her performance of the power ballad ‘That’s The Way It Is’ towards the end of the show is a highlight.
Appelqvist’s Romeo is dashing and delightfully dim, and their vocals are to die for. Dutlow infuses the role of May with the perfect balance of vim and vulnerability; their performance of ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ left barely a dry eye in the house on opening night. Making his professional debut, Fernando is sweet, open and honest as Francois, and his duets with Dutlow are sensational.
The entire ensemble radiates energy and joy throughout. It’s thrilling to see so many recognisable faces from past smaller scale independent shows getting to perform in a huge commercial mainstage musical. It’s also exciting to see the diversity within this cast and for a true representation of the larger community to receive recognition on stage. Producers take note: this is the way forward, so get on board or get left behind.
& Juliet is a big, bold and brave Broadway spectacle. It’s a ferociously fun mash-up of tradition and innovation – a show that celebrates being your authentic self, finding your voice and being empowered by those choices.
& Juliet, produced by Michael Cassel Group in association with MTM/Leyline
Music and lyrics by Max Martin and Friends
Book by David West Read
Directed by Luke Sheppard
Regent Theatre, Melbourne