Empowerment at its most joyful is lighting up the stage in a whole new way with & Juliet.
A Melbourne theatre audience has never burst into spontaneous applause, waving arms and ovations to this extent but that’s the power of this show and particularly these performances. It’s musical theatre that welcomes, without beckoning, that audience response, driven by Max Martin’s genius pop songbook, structured around 30 of his hits by stars such as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Pink. A type of anthem piece for self-empowerment and self-realisation.
Unlike other girl power shows, from stalwart Mamma Mia! to Wicked and Six, & Juliet takes a broader brush to encompass the triumph of living a true life whether that’s being gender fluid, feminist or learning to follow your own path.
As such, it makes for one of the most uplifting, irresistible, and energising nights in the theatre. It speaks directly to a young audience who may recognise their own journey on stage, but older audience members can appreciate their moment to liberate just as much, delighting in a more inclusive horizon.
The show sees William Shakespeare, played well by Rob Mills, being challenged by his spirited, disgruntled wife Anne Hathaway to rewrite the ending of Romeo and Juliet so Juliet doesn’t die. That’s the starting point for a new set of adventures for Juliet, ultimately finding herself.
Romeo, it must be said, is presented as a much less impactful sop but even he finds his truth, admitting what may be interpreted as failings. Played by Blake Appelqvist, they give an outstanding performance of It’s My Life which must be one of the most arresting Act 1 closures in musical theatre.
The songs, and their execution, are the show’s strength. Singing is consistently impressive in brilliant casting, led by relative newcomer Lorinda May Merrypor as Juliet. She’s the teen who’s bumbling through dramas and living on her emotions, towards the final roar of claiming her self-confidence. She’s engaging, with a voice as effortless as it is powerful. We have a bright new talent in Merrypor. In fact, this production, the first outside the UK where the show opened in 2019 and New York where it only opened last November, sees the debut of seven new young musical theatre talents.
It’s commendable, in a risky market, to give newcomers such as Yashith Fernando a leading role, playing Francois, Juliet’s rebound lover after Romeo. Fernando makes a mark as the teen struggling to find his identity and accept his feelings for Juliet’s best friend May, sung with warmth and command by Jesse Dutlow.
Casey Donovan is a hit as Juliet’s nurse. Her vocal aptitude is already well applauded but she’s cleverly comic in this role. Amy Lehpamer makes a welcome return to the stage, standing out for her musical theatre pedigree and command in all of its triple threat wonders, as the master of Juliet’s new destiny in Hathaway.
Hayden Tee, as Francois’ father Lance, leads the showstopper and the boys through one of their rare moments to shine, in Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).
The book by David West Read, acclaimed Schitt’s Creek writer, serves more as padding between the songs. The set ups to the songs are so literal they make for much of the humour. Those that are slightly less conspicuous, such as the set up to Oops!….I Did it Again are more artful.
Choreography by Jennifer Weber focuses on sharp arms and knee lifts, carrying the emotion of rising up against inhibiting restraints so it has street dancing references, all performed in hybrid renaissance/1990s grunge costumes.
But it’s the cast who brings the audience to its feet, celebrating this juke box musical for unashamed, unbridled joy.