Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s score for this 2011 musical sounds exemplary. With consistently strong songs and smart lyrics, this is a show that can hold its head high. While not all the numbers feel as if they belong in a story about criminals – and the sense of time and place for these depression era degenerates isn’t convincing – there is barely a weak number to be heard.
The entire cast enjoys this solid material. The production has fine leads, with Frances Mayli McCann and Jordan Luke Gage taking the title roles. Given the stronger written part, Gage’s acting impresses. Director Nick Winston’s production is a quality affair. Although small, the venue feels appropriate for the show and the design from Philip Witcomb is neat, if far from lavish.
Problems arise with Ivan Menchell’s book and the characterisations here. Time spent on Bonnie and Clyde, looking at their motivations and insecurities, is rewarding. But secondary roles – Clyde’s brother and his wife, as well as a law man who holds a torch for Bonnie – are poor. The performers – George Maguire, Natalie McQueen and Cleve September – sound good, but the roles are written either too comic or too sincere. These issues are worse when it comes to the crime couple’s parents.
Such poor parts are an especial shame, since focusing on how others feel and are affected by Bonnie and Clyde is the show’s smart move. Taking criminals as your protagonists in any drama must be handled sensitively. This show generally avoids the danger, as aspirations for fame seem silly and both fall into violence in a convincingly chaotic fashion. If there’s a little too much sympathy for the gangsters, the show never leaves us in any doubt about how destructive they are. And it really does sound great along the way.
Just imagine Juliet decides not to kill herself at the end of Shakespeare’s play. David West Read’s mashup show pretends to be written as we watch… by none other than Anne Hathaway and her hubby, who battle to change the script before our eyes. And it’s all set to hit songs. It’s a mad idea, even if not entirely original. But & Juliet is so silly it ends up a success.
The key is Luke Sheppard’s direction, which powers through a lot of action and even more songs. There are some big problems, and there’s little time for questions of credibility, but just sit back and enjoy until the standing ovation at the end.
Creating most of the atmosphere is an amazing performance from the show’s titular lead, played by Miriam-Teak Lee. This Juliet is just… cool. And, like her character, Lee is someone you want to watch – and hear – with an uncanny ability to make any song sound great, again and again and again.
What’s selling the tickets is the music of Max Martin, one of the most successful producers and song writers ever. Hits for the Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi and Britney Spears are used to tell a coming-of-age story. So, you know the joke. Will Juliet learn from her mistakes or (oops) do them again? Will her troubles make her Stronger? It’s been done before (and, if memory serves, We Will Rock You did it better). But although it’s only one joke per song. It is a very good joke.
Martin may be second only to Lennon and McCartney for US number one hits (how’s that for pub trivia?) but that doesn’t mean the songs are suited to the stage. No matter how excellent the arrangement (credited to Dominic Fallacaro and Bill Sherman, who have done superb work), the songs are used for a laugh, or occasionally to get across an idea that gets a cheer. A lot of dialogue ends up interrupting some very good singing.
There is a lot to get through. There’s a romance for Juliet’s Nurse: the excellent Melanie La Barrie who, with her paramour, played by David Bedella, offers strong comic support as well as sounding fantastic. There’s a new marriage for Juliet, this time with a sweet and spoiled Francois Du Bois (what kind of band do you think he’s in?) that Tim Mahendran makes appealing. And there’s a twist. For Francois falls for Juliet’s gender-neutral best friend named May, portrayed with sensitivity by Alex Thomas-Smith, who sings I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman.
I enjoyed all the above. A lot. But the show is let down by its wimpy Romeo (yes, he returns), a role that Jordan Luke Gage doesn’t seem to be allowed to do much with. Worse still is the second plot, with Mr & Mrs Shakespeare trying to save their marriage. Poor Will comes off as a bore (Oliver Tompsett is wasted in the part) and, in a show proud of bad puns, seems embarrassed at one or two. And despite a spirited performance from Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway, her character doesn’t impress either. It’s a conceit too far from West Read that gets in the way of more interesting action.
If you’re going to dismiss the show as woke, don’t. Jargon may jar but it’s well intentioned, while I feel obliged to point out Juliet has ‘agency’ in the original play anyway – and that rewriting history is being done better down the road by Six. Nonetheless, seeing the young woman alongside two older female characters getting what they want is heartening. And the inclusion of a non-binary character is important. Remember, a juke-box musical doesn’t have to do any of this to sell tickets. Which makes claims for & Juliet that are a long way from the nonsense on stage. Make no mistake – silliness propels the show. And the energetic ensemble is led by a true star. But there’s also a sincerity here to make any faults forgivable.
Like the 1989 film on which it is based, Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s musical aims for cult status. Given a brief West End run that is well worth catching, the show can make a claim for that status: the production, directed by Andy Fickman, keeps popping up and fans are as enthusiastic as the energetic performances on offer.
Heathers has its quirks – not all of them work – but there’s a striving for originality that is admirable. The show enjoys a twisted sensibility that, in truth, has limited shock value. And you can question how the topics of teenage suicide and mass killing are handled. What, no trigger warning? Nonetheless, the show is well above average.
Twists on high-school dramas are as predictable as high-school dramas themselves. But the titular characters here, popular girls who share the same first name, are impressively repulsive. Led by Jodie Steele, who makes her role fool-proof with its brashness, the trio are fun. Our actual heroes are the real psychopaths, with roles that aren’t much more convincing, even if Christina Bennington and Jordan Luke Gage give their very best.
The music is good. This is a fine collection of rock/pop songs on the right side of late 1980s pastiche. If there aren’t enough stand-out numbers, collectively the score and lyrics are impressive. And all the numbers demand powerful vocals provided by everyone on stage. It’s rousing stuff, often funny and occasionally original. The choreography, from Gary Lloyd (also associate director), with mirroring moves to show the Heathers’ influence on others, is also strong. The production is almost entertaining enough to ignore what is actually going on.
In common with lots of teen dramas, the adults in the piece are awful (even with the excellent Lauren Ward putting in a star turn as a hippy teacher). It might be better to excise them altogether. And while strong female characters are welcome, might balance help? I think every named male character is either a potential rapist, a closeted homosexual or a serial killer!
Following the movie closely makes the plot cumbersome on stage. Murphy and O’Keefe’s tweaks are good – especially having victims appear as ghosts, not least because we get to see more of Steele – but they only add to a plot that starts to become unwieldy. And we do have to address the very serious subject matter. Not because musicals can’t tackle such subjects, or that humour shouldn’t be used to examine them, but because Heathers doesn’t deal with violence well. In a long show, questions of motive and morality are shoehorned in or glossed over. A too speedy resolution and homespun wisdom tacked on don’t do the subject – or the show – justice.