BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic

BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most iconic and tragic romance of all time. It is a play that has been produced hundreds of times and has been recreated into films, books, musicals, operas and numerous other artistic mediums. Everyone knows the story, and some would think that this classic text would be too epic and too daunting an undertaking for regional theatres such as Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, New Jersey.

However, as I sat in the audience for Thursday night's preview performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Ritz, I was blown away by not only the gorgeous set, lighting and sound design of the show, but the actors' aptitude with the text, and Bruce Curless' picturesque directing. There is crisp simplicity in Curless' approach to Shakespeare's classic story. Instead of being driven by modernizing the text, or overt conceptualization, Curless chooses to keep the main focus on Shakespeare's words, making sure the actors know exactly what they are talking about.

With simplistically period set design, costumes, and lighting, Curless does not force a modern concept onto Shakespeare's play. South Jersey actor Tommy Foy, who plays Benvolio in his Ritz mainstage debut, told me, "Often companies will throw concepts on top of Shakespeare's plays in order to make them more accessible to modern audiences. While I do believe that in doing so can be most often successful and even add another layer to the overall messages of the plays, we are showing that the messages can be just as powerful and profound when presented as originally intended (or close to it.) Also, I think that doing a classical period-accurate version can be seen as a concept in its own right." Foy also told me, "More than anything, I think that we are out to let the text be heard and understood."

BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic
Tommy Foy as Benvolio and
Christian Ryan as Romeo

Well, if that is the Ritz' mission with this production, I firmly believe that they accomplished it. The Ritz' production of Romeo and Juliet is an absolute must-see for anyone who is intimidated, put to sleep, or just is turned off by Shakespeare's writing. I give kudos to J.J. Van Name, the text coach of the Ritz' production because the actors clearly understand the text and do an amazing job highlighting the nuances of Shakespeare's words.

Craig Hutchings, Lord Capulet and Associate Artistic Director of the Ritz, told me about how the cast spent "FAR more time on the text work than anything else." He said, "I would like to think that our focus on authentic text work and using original practices with the text work is unique to Romeo and Juliet as often people put a twist or modernization on the show, and we worked hard to present the text in the most authentic original way that we could."

BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic
John Nicodemo as Lord Montague, Craig Hutchings as Lord Capulet,
and Casey Williams-Ficarra as Lady Capulet

The cast makes Shakespeare's archaic words accessible, and even humorous! Curless' directing, especially in the first act, is very fun, highlighting the comedy of Shakespeare's script that is often overlooked by other directors that wish to keep the somber tone of a classic tragedy.

Where the first act of Ritz' production is comedic, energetic and (dare I say it?) joyous, the second act quickly becomes dark as the audience knows how this tragedy unfolds. Although we are already privy to how the story ends, Curless' last picture of Juliet's lifeless body draped over the corpse of her beloved Romeo (perfectly lit by South Jersey's talented lighting design guru Chris Miller) gives me goosebumps.

BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic
Katie Knoblock as Juliet and Christian Ryan
as Romeo in the "Balcony Scene"

Ritz' production of Shakespeare's tragic tale is perfectly cast with Christian Ryan as Romeo and Katie Knoblock as Juliet. The two have fantastic chemistry and Curless' directing and Ryan's acting stresses the emotional immaturity of Romeo. This production (more than any other production of Romeo and Juliet that I have seen) really portrays Romeo and Juliet as almost absurdly naïve in their instantaneous infatuation and proceeding romance. But it is not only the leads in this play that are strong actors, every actor on the stage hold their own and has been absolutely perfectly cast.

Behind a very strong cast of actors, this play also features an absolutely gorgeous tiered, rotating set originally designed by Bart Healy for the Ritz in 1999 and brought back to life by Will Bryant (Technical Director and Master Carpenter), Kate Schafer (Scenic Artist), and Matt Weil (Production Manager). "I've seen multiple productions of Romeo and Juliet, but never one with a revolving set," Lauren Berman, Ritz mainstage veteran, told me. Berman serves as the Assistant Stage Manager of the show and also makes a cameo appearance in the show as the Page. "I think it's as much a character of the play as the actors. It adds privacy for Romeo and Juliet's first kiss, excitement as Romeo chases Tybalt through Verona's streets, and is quite a fun architecture to climb and utilize." Healy's set perfectly transforms from one scene to the next and is a jungle-gym on which the actors play. It creates beautiful pictures when married to Curless' directing, and Dom Ciarrocchi and Sean McGarry's immensely imaginative fight choreography.

BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic
Ritz' set for Romeo and Juliet, designed by Bart Healy and brought back to life by Will Bryant (Technical Director and Master Carpenter), Kate Schafer (Scenic Artist), Matt Weil (Production Manager).

Though the production elements in Ritz' Romeo and Juliet tend to lean toward the more traditionally Italian and period (including Melissa Harnois' perfectly-selected props and Mary Jane Murphy-Brown's beautiful costume design), the sound design, if you listen closely, has a more modern influence. Sound Designer, Pat DeFusco, brilliantly decided to underscore important moments in Romeo and Juliet's romance (such as their first kiss, the infamous "Balcony Scene", the wedding...) with an instrumental version of the emo-anthem "My Immoirtal" by Evanescence.

If you are planning on seeing this show, you would be greatly missing out if you did not stop into the gallery off of the lobby of the theatre where the talented artist Abia Johnson has created impeccably detailed scratched etchings of each actor as their character. He has also provided paperclips and paper where you can attempt to make your own scratch etchings (and see just how hard it actually is!).

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet plays through March 25th at Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.ritztheatreco.org/show/shakespeares-romeo-and-juliet/

BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Ritz Theatre Company is Anything but Tragic
Christian Ryan as Romeo and Katie Knoblock as Juliet
in a promotional photo for Ritz' Romeo and Juliet

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