The following review is based on the Wednesday, January 31st opening night performance at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, California. The cast may change from show to show.
Since its 2019 debut in the U.K., the North American premiere of Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is finally here, and it’s a ballet that audaciously reimagines Shakespeare’s most renowned work with jaw-dropping flair. If you thought Romeo and Juliet has been overdone, think again; Bourne fiercely challenges swaths of preconceived notions with a production that turns much of what one might know about the timeless tale on its head. The outcome is a flowing tapestry of movements enriched with physical gusto, lament, and suspense at the Ahmanson.
Director and Choreographer Bourne is no stranger to Center Theatre Group, his last production in L.A. being the magnificently epic Swan Lake in late 2019/early 2020. And just as that ballet utilized a British dance theatre company called New Adventures, so does Romeo and Juliet, ensuring that the threads of storytelling, many of them uniquely reshaped, are presented remarkably.
The reconfiguring of Romeo and Juliet’s setting, Verona, is the most novel of all; here, the sweeping Italian landscape has been superseded by the boys and girls Verona Institute — a mental institution with some shocking disturbances, which is beautifully juxtaposed against invertedly warm-lighted passions. Political powerplays and jockeying between the Capulets and Montagues have been effaced in this narrative to give ample time to messages on mental health, sexual assault, bullying, control, and liberation-driven dissent.
Lez Brotherston’s set and costumes are almost ominous given their bleached white simplicity — from the bare, tiled walls of the Verona Institute to the performers who become a blank canvas for the observers’ interpretations. Certainly, the lighting by Paule Constable guarantees that Brotherston’s artistic intentions, in relation to the audience, are fully realized.
The brief triumph and lasting tragedy of the protagonists’ star-crossed destinies is amplified by Sergei Prokofiev’s score, ingeniously reappropriated by Terry Davies and conducted by Brett Morris, in a prerecorded fashion. From harrowing-sounding numbers to quirky ones, the audience is empowered to maximally infer and feel for the characters no matter how small or prodigious their motions.
At the forefront of this creation at a veritable prison are inmates Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) and Juliet (Monique Jonas). Romeo enters with his parents mostly of his own volition, but the traumatized Juliet ostensibly never has a choice. As Romeo is comically stripped down by his fellow inmates, he glimpses Juliet and, by way of a showstopping pas de deux or two, they are reinvigorated by their intertwined motivations and seek to transcend the guard-railed and steel-meshed surroundings with their revolutionary sensuality.
Bleakness turns to hope when the fabled teens formally meet at the asylum-hosted ball, becoming a contemporary coupling who can’t avert their eyes from one another, culminating in a sequence involving keen evasion from a flashlight as everything comes to a standstill with an everlasting union of the mouth. As the brush-stroked nuzzling, shoulder-to-shoulder rotations, and lip-locked embrace linger — intensified by bodily ebbs and flows — the two performers nearly reinvent the kiss as a symbol of affection; a worthy follow-up sunnily fills Act II, too. The magnetic forces represented by Fitzpatrick and Jonas repeatedly galvanize the audience who watch with bated breath.
The central adversarial force is Adam Galbraith’s Tybalt, a shamelessly vindictive guard at the Institute who draws collective gasps with his gratuitous brutality and intolerance of Mercutio (Cameron Flynn) and Balthasar’s (Jackson Fisch) forbiddingly romantic union. As the Romeo-friendly figures, Flynn and Fisch are heartfelt and even heartbreaking, especially when Galbraith pushes his portrayal into the realm of maniacal incorrigibility. Galbraith’s onstage ruthlessness, in addition, gives Fitzpatrick and Jonas’s performances more urgency because of how vulnerable they are as a besieged dyad.
Other cast standouts include Euan Garrett who effortlessly traverses the stage as a fervid Benvolio; Alan Vincent who makes for a genteel Senator Montague, a watchful Guard, and an authoritative Orderly; and lastly, Daisy May Kemp who juggles the roles of well-to-do Mrs. Montague, the medicine-pushing Nurse, and the altruistic Rev. Laurence so adeptly that, unless, one is in the first ten rows, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think three different women are being highlighted.
Of course, this is a production where the sum exceeds the individual solos. Some of the most impactful moments include the ensemble whose feet pitter and patter and whose bodies march in lockstep, flounce, stride, lunge, slide, and even climb the set as if they’re gliding like a cursor on a computer screen. Props like beds and chairs don’t get in the way, either; instead, they enhance the non-verbal statements that are exclamatorily made.
Overall, in an era when artists sometimes take too much inspiration from classical pieces, with no compelling changes to show for it, Matthew Bourne has done the opposite by assiduously parsing themes of Shakespeare’s play and reworking them balletically for today, taking inventory of how issues gnawing at humanity in this century don’t necessarily all agree with yesteryear. Not to mention, the twist ending will spur discussion for days. At the heart of it all is Bourne’s instinct to push the boundaries of Romeo and Juliet, a reputed masterpiece in its original form, which has yielded a kinetic oeuvre that has more to say than most productions — and with not a single word uttered!
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet runs through Sunday, February 25th at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit centertheatregroup.org.