The following review is based on the evening performance on Sunday, December 4th.
Jukebox musicals have always been a staple of musical theatre, the latest addition to which is Invincible — The Musical, which recently made its world premiere at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and can be experienced through December 18th. Based on one of Pat Benatar’s biggest hits, the musical is similarly buoyed by other songs in the catalog of Benatar and Neil Giraldo, a husband-and-wife duo since 1982 and coincidentally inductees in this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class. And like & Juliet on Broadway, which is set to Max Martin’s turn-of-the-century pop numbers, this West Coast production has the incentivized wrinkle of a plot that comprehensively reimagines William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for modern times; ultimately, this will gratify most with an open mind, and those who appreciate Benatar and Giraldo’s work, but may exasperate Shakespeare purists.
Bradley Bredeweg’s book is imaginative, puts new twists on a several-hundred-year-old play, and is best enjoyed by completely abandoning all preconceived notions of what Romeo and Juliet is or isn’t. And while the script can potentially be better served by choosing between either Elizabethan-influenced dialogue or 2022 speak, not both, it is one that Baz Luhrmann would ineluctably find intriguing. Furthermore, the direction by Tiffany Nichole Greene paces the 105-minute production well, Arnel Sancianco’s artsy tri-level set offers an urban grittiness that manages to still effectively recreate the famous balcony scene, Elizabeth Harper’s multicolored lighting gives the narrative added intensity, Galen Hooks’s choreography incorporates recognizable dance moves, Jesse Vargas’s musical arrangements creatively interpret Benatar’s discography, and Steve Rankin’s enthralling fight direction underscores the palpable hatred between the Capulets and Montagues.
The audience is invited into a period following a civil war between the clans where the aftermath of Lord Capulet’s mysterious murder unfolds. The newly appointed Chancellor Paris (Brennin Hunt) rules Verona with an iron fist in the name of the grieving Madame Capulet (Sharon Leal) and her daughter Juliet (Kay Sibal). Paris — who has partnered with Madame Capulet’s nephew, the equally conniving Tybalt (Josh Strobl) — is convinced to marry Juliet as a means to assimilate all power unto himself and completely stamp out the Montagues and any rights-seeking protestors. With other plans in mind, Benvolio (Ari Notartomaso), Mercutio (Aaron Alcaraz), and Romeo (Khamary Rose) decide to secretly crash Juliet’s party in costume masks where the star-crossed lovers meet, revving the musical into the next gear. Last but not least of the characters are Madame Montague (Dionne Gipson), the thoughtful Nura (Julia Harriman), and the peaceful Friar (Jon Patrick Walker) who have significant roles up until the surprising denouement.
The diverse cast members, and their dedication to doing Benatar’s timeless pop smashes a great justice, are the main reason to see the show. Each one demonstrates a vocal agility and finesse that wows from one song to the next. This is apparent with every principal performer, though it is especially highlighted by the leads portraying Romeo and Juliet: Khamary Rose and Kay Sibal. The two are symphonic juggernauts on stage, passionately pushing and pulling each other’s personas with harmonious results. From the heartwarming duet of “We Live for Love,” to the emotionally heightened rollercoaster of “Heartbreaker,” Rose and Sibal share a tangible dynamism. Individually, Rose also earns admiration for his rendition of “I Feel Lucky” while effortlessly doing the robot dance, and Sibal ardently emotes with the best of them during “Promises in the Dark” and “Brave.”
Other supercharged, knock-you-off-your-feet vocals are delivered by Dionne Gipson’s Madame Montague and Sharon Leal’s Madame Capulet. The former poignantly makes her case to her onstage son Romeo in “Let’s Stay Together,” and the latter is beautifully gut-wrenching as she bellows “After the Fall” amidst the show’s climax.
Likewise, Ari Notartomaso captures the urgency of many high-stakes moments with emphatic vocals, as does Julia Harriman, who, as the Capulets’ personal assistant Nura, exhibits a masterful control over her voice in “Don’t Let It Show.” Additionally, Brennin Hunt’s Chancellor Paris shines with a gravelly rock snarl that reminds of Benatar’s 1980’s male contemporaries, such as David Coverdale. Jon Patrick Walker’s Friar, in contrast, impresses with a smooth, crooner-esque timbre.
The ensemble, too, are thoroughly spotlighted as protestors, as they poetically rise from the pit as guests of the Capulets’ visually riveting party, and as resistance-quelling members of a SWAT team who particularly make an ingenious use of their batons by thwacking them against their riot shields to add a layer of percussion to the sound mix. And although the ensemble members appear during nearly every major number (e.g., the title song, “Shadows of the Night,” “Love is a Battlefield,” and “We Belong”), doing the best with what they’re given, there is occasionally a yearning to really “go big or go home” — a line that Notartomaso’s Benvolio utters in Act I. As excellently performed as every song is, none of Benatar’s chart-toppers get entirely cranked up to 11, which is something that Jagged Little Pill, the musical, intrinsically understood as a function of fully satiating Alanis Morissette enthusiasts.
Furthermore, despite the indisputable talent on stage, the characters — like the mischievous Mercutio who isn’t quite as funny as he is in the play due to a scarcity of lines — don’t have enough time to breathe and make a measurable impact on the observer before the instrumentals of the next track are cued up by the orchestra. Notwithstanding that some may argue more backstory is unnecessary given most people’s familiarity with Romeo and Juliet, it sometimes feels as if we’re looking at brand-new characters in this production, so much so that maybe Invincible could have done without needing to lean on Shakespeare whatsoever. After all, while it is most often associated with Romeo and Juliet, the forbidden-lovers trope precedes Shakespeare by millennia.
Overall, because the identity of Invincible — The Musical isn’t entirely clear as either a nostalgic piece or modernized fable, it may alienate lovers of Shakespeare but will, at the very least, largely appeal to fans of Benatar and Giraldo, and those who can appreciate top-tier vocal talent on display. For the cast’s skills alone, including the ability to revitalize decades-old songs, Invincible is recommended.
For more information about Invincible — The Musical at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and to purchase tickets, please visit: thewallis.org/invincible