The Last Goodbye, book conceived and adapted by Michael Kimmel, music and lyrics by Jeff Buckley. Directed by Michael Kimmel.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Time takes care of the wound..."
Thank goodness for the talented people of this world. Thank goodness for Leonard Cohen and Benjamin Britten,, for example. They give us two of the finest musical moments in this new show by Jeff Buckley. "Corpus Christi Carol," sung by the character Paris, is Britten’s excellent contribution and Cohen’s "Hallelujah," introduced by Benvolio at the finale of the show, is a standout hit. These are, of course, in Buckley’s own versions of the other composers’ hits.
It becomes clear how truly tragic it is that tragedy transcends trash. Euro-trash at any rate. In this modern, update of the Shakespeare play "Romeo and Juliet" author Michael Kimmel holds fast to the language and style of William Shakespeare in the dialogue while interpolating songs by Buckley into the mix. He places his play where Will did, in Verona and the people who populate the square where Capulets and Montagues fight are mostly from the lower end of the human spectrum. Euro-trash. They dress, or cross-dress, in slutty chic, or teen-age casual, or last year’s styles. Their hair is mohawked or spiked or just unkempt.
And then there’s Juliet Capulet, young, quasi-virginal, probably on Ridalin most of the time to control her A.D.D. She flits about seemingly unable to keep herself focused on much and when she awakens from her self-inflicted catatonic state, she is early, erotically charged and over-the-top. Even so, her death is tragic and moving, even while singing the title song.
Romeo is sweat-pantsed, tee-shirted, flannel-hooded and in sneakers. He stands out from the Euro-trash crowd by appearing perfectly mid-western American. He is a poor dancer, sings in falsetto a lot of the time which makes him appear even younger than he is, and permanently in love with someone (just like in the Shakespeare play).
Mercutio is a girl; the Prince of Verona is gay; Lady Montague seems to be a widow from wrong side of the tracks; the Nurse is a young nymphet; the Friar is a hippy left over from 1972; Lady Capulet is gorgeous and young and the victim of spousal abuse; Paris is lascivious; Tybalt is a beautiful "baiter" always looking for trouble; Rosaline is a slut right out of "Married, With Children." You have to love this updating for somehow it all just works visually. Of course, the Veronese might sue, but the American image of urban Italians prevails here, thank you Hollywood and television.
Does that give you an impression of this show? Well, it’s basically all you’ll learn about the production concept from me, until we talk about the score. But that comes later.
Kelli Barrett is a beautiful and passionate Juliet, a replica in some ways of Natalie Wood in "West Side Story," that other show based on the same play. Her look, hair, makeup and dress, seems to stem from that popular source. Damon Daunno plays her husband. He isn’t the best looking young man in the company, but he has a sweetness that is reflected in his smile that works well in this role.
Tybalt is a stunner named Ashley Robinson who is effective in this part, mostly because his looks belie the nastiness of the character. His Tybalt is one-track-minded and he plays this very well. Michael Park is most effective as Capulet, finding the darkest edges for the man most of the time, but then resorting to a native charm that works for him. Nick Blaemire makes a marvelous Benvolio, the one character who survives throughout by remaining neutral and nice.
Chloe Webb is wonderful as the Nurse, even if her singing voice is the least effective in the company. Jo Lampert almost pulls off the cross-dressing Mercutio. She sings like thunder over the next hill and acts up a storm. And she can fight, too. She’s good! Jesse Lenat is a character stand-out as the Friar, always consistent and always interesting. Celina Carvajal introduces Rosaline into the proceedings as a hostile, controlling bitch right out of The Sopranos.
Merle Dandridge is a beautiful woman playing a woman who is beautiful. Her quixotic emotional shifts were well handled and her singing was equally effective.
On a fascinating set by Michael Brown that was constantly being transformed by the company, dressed in erotic and odd costumes by Anne Kennedy that really defined each character’s inner character, and lit romantically and harshly - as the moment demanded - by Ben Stanton this is a very engaging physical production. Ken Travis’ sound design, however, often left the singers out of the equation so far too often the lyrics were unintelligible.
The combined stage direction forces of Michael Kimmel and choreographer Sonya Tayeh were reminiscent of some of the odd moments in theater and film, such as the "beatnik" number in the film of "Funny Face" or the "Rhythm of Life" in the film version of "Sweet Charity." This choice didn’t always work for this show, but when it did it really truly did. Kimmel used the set effectively as his company moved in, out around and through it and it was nice, in this instance, to see the band members on stage.
Musically the show is outside the realm of reality. Though Buckley’s sound is consistent it didn’t always really fit into the script, particularly when the words were Will’s and not Michael’s. It might have worked better if the current author had transformed the Shakespeare into current vernacular before adding his own words for the characters keeping the gist of the Shakespeare and even the best-known quotes. The move from dialogue into song usually went smoothly, but then the lyrics couldn’t always support the moment as they moved into their own particular realm.
Still, in spite of all the disparate elements that make up this show, the tragic ending was moving, as it must be for the final scene to work. Buckley’s hit song "Grace" comes next to closing, as the ten o'clock number (so-called because it came just before the finale - usually the place for a hit song to be added) and it does work there. Even so, the best pieces in the show, other than the Cohen finale and the Britten item, were Buckley’s "Morning Theft" which was perfect for its spot, "Everybody Here Wants You" which made no sense but meant everything to Romeo’s wooing, and "Forget Her."
I wouldn’t necessarily see this one again, but once is interesting enough to spend a night with this show. You can do worse. You can do better. You owe it to yourself to risk it if you have the chance to see a lot of shows this season. You just might fall in love, or be moved, or want to know more about the man who wrote the songs. That’s an interesting story in itself.
Damon Daunno & Kelli Barrett; photo: Sam Hough
Chloe Webb & Kelli Barrett; photo: Sam Hough
Jo Lampert; photo: Sam Hough
The Last Goodbye plays through August 20 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, located on Main Street in Williamstown, MA For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-597-3400.