There is no doubt that within the theatre community, brand new musical & Juliet is one of the most eagerly anticipated shows to open this year. The musical which stars Hamilton’s Miriam-Teak Lee in the eponymous role, uses the extensive back catalogue of music producer Max Martin, to tell the story of what happened if Juliet decided there was a life after Romeo and Juliet and decided that Paris is the place to be. The book by David West Read, tells us the story of how Juliet decides that life means more to her than dying for the one she thinks she loves.
Ahead of the show’s London opening in November, the show has been wowing audiences at Manchester Opera House since mid September and if the show I saw on October 1, 2019 then London audiences will be in for a real treat next month.
Although there is only one original song “One More Try” in the show, the re-orchestrations of the songs at the hands of Bill Sherman create a new twist on some incredibly memorable, and nostalgic songs and at no point did I feel that I was watching a traditional “jukebox musical” and that is due in no small part to the exceptional directing talent of Luke Sheppard (In The Heights).
West End stalwart Oliver Tompsett (We Will Rock You, Wicked, Rock of Ages, Kinky Boots), plays William Shakespeare who is debuting the first performance of Romeo and Juliet to a challenging audience after making a memorable entrance and Cassidy Janson (Beautiful, Man of La Mancha) stars as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife who makes him reconsider his “shit” ending.
Tompsett is perfectly cast as Shakespeare, and his cheeky and clever Shakespeare is definitely not the bading, ruff wearing image we are used to seeing. He has exceptional chemistry with Janson, and there are times where you can’t decide whether you want to slap him or hug him. Of course Tompsett’s voice is nothing short of perfect, with the opening number “Larger Than Life” showing off his vocals perfectly, his duet with Janson “As Long as You Love Me” is one of the tearjerkers of the show, and of course hearing Tompsett rock out in “It’s My Life” is pure pleasure. Tompsett’s Shakespeare is definitely not a one dimensional caricature, and we definitely see Shakespeare as a slightly flawed human who pours himself into his work at the potential exclusion of Anne.
Janson is a joy to watch both as Anne Hathaway, and as Juliet’s new best friend April who helps her to find the way to secure her own happiness. Janson has a fabulous comic touch and she has some of the funniest lines in the show, and the scenes between Juliet and her friends are just a joy to watch. Janson blew the roof off the theatre with her rendition of the Celine Dion classic “That’s the Way It Is.” Whilst Lee (and Juliet) is no doubt the star of the show, it feels like Janson and her characters are the true heart of the show, and some of her scenes with Tompsett will bring a tear to your eye.
Joining Janson’s April as one of Juliet’s friends is Arun Blair-Mangat (Angels in America, Leave to Remain, In The Heights, Kinky Boots) as May who is always there for Juliet and is willing to throw away their own chance at love for their best friend. Blair-Mangat is as always heart wrenchingly amazing, and May is a truly fabulous character and at no point does May feel like a stereotype, or a reason to be mocked. May’s relationship with Juliet is something that everyone needs, a friend who has their back and there is a lovely emotional connection between the pair, however their group is not without its comedic elements which Blair-Mangat excels at as can be seen in songs such as “I Kissed a Girl”. Blair Mangat is a true vocal powerhouse with two of what I feel are some of the many unforgettable songs within the show; “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” had the audience drawn in totally with an emotional rawness that Blair-Mangat creates effortlessly and it reduced me to a total puddle of tears and “Whataya Want From Me” shows a new side to his vocal range that I wasn’t used to hearing, and I need to hear more rock spring forth from his stunning vocals. I truly believe that Blair-Mangat’s role could see him receive nods when awards season comes round next year.
Tim Mahenderan, who plays Francois, is just exceptional and a shining talent with songs such as his duets with Blair-Mangat and Lee. I can’t wait to hear what Mahenderan will do next, and I have no doubt he has a bright and glittering future ahead of him. His emotional scenes are just amazing and you end the show rooting for Francois’s happiness just as much as Juliet’s.
Double Olivier Award winner David Bedella (Jerry Springer the Opera, The Rocky Horror Show, In The Heights) stars as Francois’s father Lance, who is blustering and pompous who is also an old flame of Juliet’s nurse, played by the sublime Melanie La Barrie (Wicked). Songs such as “Shape of My Heart” reminded me of what a wonderful voice and range Bedella has. Bedella’s comic side is definitely allowed to fly free in the role of Lance, and I had to pick my jaw off the floor (in the best possible way) watching Bedella and La Barrie frolicking around a bedroom whilst singing a mash up of “Teenage Dream” and “Break Free”.
In a similar vein, I never knew that I needed to see a “Bois Band” comprising Tompsett, Blair-Mangat, Mahenderan, Bedella, and Jordan Luke Gage (Bat Out of Hell) who sing and dance their way through “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”, but now I’ve seen it I want to watch it again, and again.
Gage, plays Romeo who we only really see at the end of Act One, when he arrives in a blaze of glory rocking to “It’s My Life” and determined to win back the most recent woman he loved. This version of Romeo is vapid, dense and in the words of Anne Hathaway “a douche”. Gage’s voice is something special and his duet with Lee “One More Try” is gorgeous, and although his Romeo is anything by perfect he is still a guy trying to do the right thing.
There is one true star of the show and that is Miriam-Teak Lee as Juliet, a modern girl who isn’t willing to let a failed relationship define her life, and with the help of her friends she will discover who she is. Lee’s performance is truly of another level of power and awesome raw talent from her pared back version of “…Baby One More Time” to her theatre grabbing rendition of “Roar” which is undoubtedly the anthem of this show. There is not one song that she doesn’t fail to deliver on and her voice is truly of the most exceptional I have ever had the honour to listen to. The mash up “Problem/Can’t Feel My Face” with Lee and Gage is one of the most inventive reimaginings of the songs in the show. If Lee does not receive an Olivier Nomination for her role in the show, then I will wonder what is truly wrong with the world. Lee deserves every praise for the way that she becomes the centre of the show without making it a one woman show, yet standing tall in her own diva worthy way.
The “Company of Players” are one of the tightest I have seen in a long time, with a special mention to Grace Mouat (Six), and Jocasta Almgill (Dreamgirls, West Side Story, In The Heights) who plays the almost villainous Lady Capulet; they are both brilliant and bring a new level to the show.
The choreography from Jennifer Weber is clever, and in total keeping with the vision that has been created and the company execute it impeccably. Paloma Young’s costumes are unexpected but work so well with feel of the show, and the costumes never feel out of place or jarring to the action that is taking place on stage at the time. Soutra Gilmour’s set design in conjunction with the lighting designed by Howard Hudson create the varying worlds of Verona and Paris in a way that was totally unexpected and the mash up of period and more modern makes it even more interesting. I certainly found myself looking at so many details of the stage before the show and in the interval which is not something that happens all that often.
At the end of the show, the entire audience is on its feet and quite rightly so, because & Juliet is the musical we have been waiting for to show us all that there is more to a person than the person they fall in love with and that we are ok no matter what. I can’t wait to see this show again and again, because this show deserves to run for a long time.
Check out the gallery of official production photos below:
& Juliet is currently playing at Manchester Opera House until October 12, and will open at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre on November 19 with previews starting on November 2. Tickets for both venues can be purchased via the show’s official website.