Shakespeare on the Sound’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Joanna Settle with songs by rock musician Stew and his performing partner Heidi Rodewald opened this week in Baldwin Park in Greenwich, with the formal opening last night.
Director Settle has created an oddly compelling pared-down Romeo and Juliet using nine speaking actors and one mute server (the skillful Erica Blumrosen). To make room for Stew and Rodewald’s eight excellent songs, the show has been shortened and a number of characters are eliminated without much changing the basic story.
Gone are Balthasar, Abram, Lady Montague and (almost) Lord Montague, Sampson, Gregory, Peter, the Prince, and Friar John, as well as all of the chorus and servants. One of the Prince’s lines may have been delivered by Lady Capulet, but the subplot of banishment if the families do not stop fighting has itself been banished.
Tybalt also is gone, except for two or three lines in the second act when Rachael Holmes (Lady Capulet) briefly takes the role of Tybalt long enough to lose a sword battle with Romeo and be killed.
The show begins with Tony Torn (Capulet) welcoming us and his informally clad guests on an outdoor patio to the “annual summer birthday playreading.” The guests are given scripts and open envelopes to find out their parts. Torn is dismayed to be assigned Capulet since his wife (Ali Ahn) is playing Juliet to the much younger William Jackson Harper’s Romeo. The “show” begins with the haunting song “In Verona” sung by the excellent Damian Lemar Hudson and the cast reading lines beginning with the street dispute between Capulets and Montagues.
Over the course of the first half hour, the cast gradually abandon their scripts and become the characters more fully, although they never change their costumes much.
Stew and Rodewald’s music can mostly be called rock, although the songs are excellent and for the most part tuneful. There is one medieval-style interlude and one really dissonant dirge-like fugue that the actors sing after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, but the rest of the songs are a lot of fun. The song “In Verona” also closes the show and a variant of it appears somewhere in the middle. The songs are not listed in the program, nor are the backstage musicians credited.
All of the actors in this performance are impressive both as actors and as singers, and all are called on to sing sometime during the show. Ali Ahn’s remarkable Juliet is convincingly girlish and charming at the outset and becomes firmer and more adult as the show turns darker near the end.
William Jackson Harper’s Romeo is strong and convincing throughout and has so much charisma you can hardly take your eyes off him, whether acting, making love or singing. His Act II song just before he goes to the apothecary for poison is cleverly staged with him tossing cards into a hat with each phrase of the song.
Rachael Holmes is officious and arrogant as Lady Capulet and an excellent swordsman as she takes over the role of Tybalt briefly in Act II. Matt Citron’s Mercutio is astonishingly versatile as a singer, keyboardist, guitarist and actor. He struts, dances, runs, wiggles and declaims from every spot in the theater.
David Cale’s Friar is strong and convincing actor and singer who struggles to reconcile the conflicting factions and unite the young lovers. The plot, of course, turns on Juliet being given a sleeping potion and the Friar’s note to Romeo explain that she is not dead not being delivered. Amusingly, the director puts the Friar on a cell phone call to Mantua to find out if the message was delivered.
Tony Torn’s Capulet is a powerful actor and in his Act II orders that Juliet marry Paris is extraordinarily compelling. Older than the rest of the cast, he has a great deal of gravitas but still seems to be showing some annoyance that he didn’t get to play Romeo.
Will Cohn is an impressive actor who manages to play not only Benvolio, but takes on the lines of a number of other missing characters and runs about and sings most impressively, as well as playing guitar.
As the Nurse, Chinasa Ogbuagu is extremely powerful. You forget how important the Nurse is to the play and to Juliet until you see her play the role so commandingly. Again, she is an actress who dominates the stage just by standing there. And she is not above the occasional joke, telling the sleeping Juliet to “Wake up, slug-a-bed!”
Damian Lemar Hudson plays the Singer with a terrific voice, and also takes on the truncated second act role of County Paris with great skill. His singing of “In Verona” as well as his contribution to the other songs is skilled and powerful.
Laura Jellinek’s multi-leveled set is extremely impressive, giving the impression of an outdoor patio, but made up of closely spaced strips of wood on smoothly varying metal frames. The set is probably more than 50 ft wide and sits in front of a wall of stained wooden singles, like the outside of a house. There are also two large platforms in the audience that the actors appear on.
The cast literally runs across the stage, into the audience and up onto the platforms, sometimes while barefoot. In fact the balcony scene is played with Harper on one of the platforms and Ahn on the main stage some yards away.
The sound design by Obadiah Eaves and Jessica Paz makes sure that all of the cast are easily heard, no matter where they are standing on the main stage or the audience platforms. However, since there is no stereo separation it can be really difficult to figure out who is talking or singing, since the sound comes only from onstage speakers.
All of the cast sings Stew and Rodewald’s songs with power and enthusiasm, although not all equally well. Ahn’s wailing song that opens Act II is very powerful and affecting, but seems to wander away from the tune from time to time.
When you go to hear Shakespeare, it usually takes a few minutes for your ear to “lock in” to the rhythms of his Elizabethan language, and that is true here, too, although the cast’s enthusiastic and thoughtful delivery of every single line makes it that much easier to understand as you are slowly adapting to the style.
They begin the show speaking in modern vernacular with some urban rhythms and style, but most of them move slowly to the standard “mid-Atlantic” style that makes the lines clear and easy to understand. (Mid-Atlantic means halfway across the Atlantic towards England.) Tony Torn, however continues to affect a homey Midwestern twang throughout, perhaps to give him distance from the others, and Holmes as Lady Capulet maintains some of her urban rhythms.
Again, despite the surprising interposing of Stew and Rodewald’s rock ballads with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan language this is very compelling and entertaining show, although perhaps a bit long for very young family members. It begins promptly at 7:30 and ends about 10:25, with one 15-minute intermission around 8:50.
The show runs June 26-July 8 in Baldwin Park in Greenwich and July18-29 at Pinkney Park in Rowayton. Admission is free, but a $20 donation is suggested ($10 for children). You can bring your own blankets and sit right in the front, on short beach-style chairs and sit behind the picnickers. Or you can bring ordinary lawn chairs and sit behind them. There are also reserved lawn chairs available for $50.