Review: INVINCIBLE: THE MUSICAL At Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts

Bard, Benetar and Bredeweg make for an uncomfortable union

By: Dec. 09, 2022
Review: INVINCIBLE: THE MUSICAL At Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts

"Question everything!" is the hushed advice issued by the weed-smoking Friar to the young but smart-for-her-years Juliet Capulet in the early scenes of the musical INVINCIBLE at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts. It's kind of a stupid line (although considering some of the other inanities bookwriter Bradley Bredeweg later has his characters uttering, "question everything" is positively Ciceronian) and, no, our good Friar does not appear to be high when he says it. INVINCIBLE blends the music of husband and wife rockers Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar with a reconsideration of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET. Since Bredeweg and the creative forces behind INVINCIBLE apparently doesn't feel that the Bard or Avon's story of star-crossed lovers and Benatar and Neil Giraldo's hits are enough to carry an evening on their own, he has laced the tale with a murky conspiracy plotline that pitches R&J closer to RICHARD III. Hence Juliet's quest to figure things out...while also falling in love, of course, -

Still, in the spirit of listening to our clergy, let's play along and ask some INVINCIBLE questions. Among them...

Why, in a play with such a contemporary vibe where most of the dialog and all the songs are in contemporary English, do the characters randomly slip in Some Shakespearean lines?

How does a musical that purports to be about openness and inclusivity decide to make its two most villainous characters gay?

How can anyone possibly do a jukebox musical featuring the songs of 80s pop/punk queen Benatar and not include "Hit Me with Your Best Shot?"

And when will jukebox jockeys with Broadway stars in their eyes settle upon a new go-to story besides ROMEO AND JULIET?

I'll tackle that last question first. The answer is never, and for rather obvious reasons. Feuding families, forbidden lovers...forsooth, what musician hasn't tackled those themes. Following spins on ROMEO AND JULIET that have featured the music of Leonard Bernstein, Jeff Buckley and even Hall & Oates (followed by the current pop jukebox sequel, & JULIET on Broadway), INVINCIBLE may see itself lining up to follow some grand legacy. You can switch up the singers, but by now we really have heard this song before.

Misfiring on a lot of levels though it does, the production's world premiere, directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, has no shortage of electricity. Greene's young and spirited ensemble pumps away to some quite familiar songs and to others that are less well-known. Sporting costumes designed by Lena Sands that look like one might find them a few blocks over from the Wallis in the fashion-swanky heart of Beverly Hills, our Veronans look to die for (and some of them do). Not sure these would necessarily be the best duds to wear to a protest or a street fight, but there you have it. The centerpiece of Scenic Designer Arnel Sancianco's is a monolithic three-story goliath that resembles a stone age parking garage. It does, however, offer a balcony.

But to the plot ... some sort of recently concluded civil war has the Capulets ruling Verona and fully oppressing and disenfranchising the rival Montagues. The lords of both houses were killed in the conflict, leaving their widows to oversee these still-feuding households. Madame Capulet (played by Sharon Leal) looks to position her 19-year-old daughter Juliet for greatest political advancement. Madame Montague (Dionne Gipson), meanwhile, frets anxiously over Romeo (Khamary Rose), looking to keep him safely indoors and out of trouble. Romeo's running mates Mercutio (Aaron Alcaraz) and Benvolio (Ari Notartomaso), of course, have other ideas, particularly when they stumble upon an invitation to the Capulet ball.

Since assuming the reins of power, Prince Paris (Brennin Hunt) is hell-bent on keeping and advancing his status by whatever means necessary. By marrying Juliet (Kay Sibal), Paris would become no longer a "Capulet by default" (although, truthfully, he might have more easily married Madame Capulet and saved everybody a lot of heartache). Juliet, meanwhile, is trying to make sense of things without ending up as a pawn in the Capulet power games. Juliet's good friend Nura (Julia Harriman) is in her corner. When not mixing it up with the lads, Romeo hangs with the Friar (Jon Patrick Walker) though always politely declining the holy man's offer of "medicinal herbs."

Sibal is an appropriately lovestruck and conflicted Juliet drawn between love and family obligation and pulled into a political boondoggle in which she has little interest. She partners well with Rose's mopey and occasionally henpecked Romeo. The two actually have a lover's quarrel to the tune of "Heartbreaker," of course. Leal navigates rough waters taking Madame Capulet from manipulated kingmaker to something resembling a concerned parent. Walker and Hunt show off their Broadway chops as the Friar and Prince Paris respectively.

In his program notes, Bredeweg contends that the 13 songs on Benatar's "Best of" Album "perfectly tell the story of ROMEO AND JULIET." That may well be the case, but INVINCIBLE has no less than 27 numbers (several of them snippets) shoehorned into a 100-minute performance. Given the extreme clunkiness of the dialog (and the jarring inclusion of actual Shakespearean text for no discernible reason), it's a lot more pleasurable to watch the players moving and singing than talking. Still, on more than one occasion, you feel that Giraldo (who did the orchestrations with music director Jesse Vargas) might have let some of these songs have the space to breathe. Benatar and Giraldo are newly-inducted members to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but with rare exception, INVINCIBLE showcases them as little more than songs worthy of a dance party. Thanks to the work of choreographer Galen Hooks, whenever there is a big musical number, the ensemble kills it.

Toward the end of the play, two different actors sing - quite powerfully - over Juliet's corpse. For the sake of Romeo and Juliet and the future of their two plagued houses, it's a mighty good thing the individual who sings the second tune - "We Belong" - does not rush things. INVINCIBLE offers up not quite the ending you may be expecting and the play's conclusion drew audience chuckles on opening night which I'm fairly certain are not what the makers of INVINCIBLE are looking for.

INVINCIBLE plays through December 18 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Photo by Jamie Pham Photography