& Juliet review – strange joy and pop delirium as Shakespeare gets a Max Martin makeover

It’s not often that a standing ovation occurs – twice – before a show is even over. The first time is for an insanely silly boy band performance (with choreography and all) of the Backstreet Boys’ most famous single of the same name; the second, a glitter-drenched rendition of Katy Perry’s Roar.

These are ubiquitous songs in the pop music canon, familiar to anyone who’s been anywhere near planet Earth in recent decades. The musical’s 30 or so songs are all written by one man: Swedish pop powerhouse Max Martin, who is in attendance at the show’s Australian premiere on Thursday night in Melbourne. It’s a lot more songs than there would be in a regular musical, but when the jukebox is so full, why the hell not?

Since debuting in Manchester in 2019 (before moving to the West End), & Juliet has become a favorite in the musical theater world – and it’s not hard to see why. Featuring a book by Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read (fans of the hit series will enjoy an Easter egg-esque one-liner riff on Alexis Rose), the show takes Shakespeare’s play and gives it a #girlboss makeover to ask: What if Juliet were alive? The politics are rudimentary, but the humour, high-octane production and, yes, the songs make it irresistible.

Related: ‘Theatre and pop in its absolute excess’: William Shakespeare meets Britney Spears as & Juliet comes to Australia

The local cast includes familiar faces (Rob Mills as Shakespeare; the wondrous Casey Donovan, who draws a roar from the crowd as soon as she appears, as Juliet’s nurse Angélique) and newcomers: seven cast members make their professional debuts. It’s a show that feels truly inclusive: Many of the cast are Indigenous or people of color, and many identify outside of the gender binary (the program includes pronouns for each member). One character, May (Jesse Dutlow), is non-binary and tenderly explores these feelings through Britney Spears’ I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.

While it’s mainstream by all accounts and ostensibly revolves around the ultimate heterosexual love story, there’s a beautiful undercurrent of queer joy to this show.

& Juliet shows surprising parallels with a recent Australian production, Virginia Gay’s Cyrano at the MTC. Both are self-referential, building a new story brick by brick for the audience in real time and challenging the archaic nature of their source material. Here it is Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway (Amy Lehpamer), who asks the questions and demands autonomy for Juliet; in doing so, she also flips the script to the bard himself, investigating their own troubled relationship and his tortured act of genius.

But really, it’s all about the music – in some ways, the story is a vessel for the songs. It’s a powerful reminder of how prolific and good Martin is at this whole pop thing. It feels a bit like a karaoke party – audience members (let’s be honest, this one included) are grumbling or singing out loud all the time. Nostalgia is a driving force here, especially for millennials – these songs have soundtracked our lives and it feels like giving the inner child a big hug to hear them sing with such life-affirming joy.

Some of the recasts are stunning: Spears’ Baby One More Time gets a cavernous, bass-heavy makeover when audiences first meet Lorinda May Merrypor as Juliet; a seamless mashup of Perry’s Teenage Dream and Ariana Grande’s Break Free reveals incredible chemistry between Donovan and love interest Lance, played in a goofy French accent by Hayden Tee. Lehpamer’s performance of Céline Dion’s That’s The Way It Is reveals a serious pair of pipes. Others are less so: what begins as a slow cover of Grande’s Problem and grows into a pop spectacle, is marred by an inelegant mashup with The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face.

But the cast has a blast, and so do the writers: A particularly clever moment pokes fun at Justin Timberlake’s statement in “NSync’s It’s Gonna Be Me” and uses it for a pivotal plot point. And finally, the gibberish lyrics of the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way somehow make sense – it’s about a playwright and his wife disagreeing over plot direction! Naturally!

This show has the hallmarks of a pop concert: confetti cannons, cast members flying above the stage or rising off the ground, tightly choreographed group dance numbers (it’s a house style musical through and through), dazzlingly bright lights and colorful sets. It has the hallmarks of a teen bubblegum romcom: montage scenes, interpersonal drama, and tender first kisses.

& Juliet doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but doesn’t want to or try. This is a tongue-in-cheek show that enjoys its own irreverence and campiness, and solicits the audience. It’s fun and uplifting, offering a message that’s simplistic yet resonant: My loneliness isn’t killing me anymore.

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