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Review: & JULIET is an Empowering Celebration of Life, Love, and the Freedom to Be Yourself

Review: & JULIET is an Empowering Celebration of Life, Love, and the Freedom to Be Yourself

Mirvish's production of the Broadway-bound musical runs through August 14.

Gone are the days where Juliet is a tragic, gone-to-soon character in a Shakespeare play; she's given a new lease on life in a new musical, with a diverse cast of characters and enough pop power anthems to have audiences dancing in their seats, no matter their age.

& JULIET makes its North American Premiere with Mirvish, allowing Toronto audiences the chance to catch the show and cast ahead of their move to Broadway. To summarize it simply, it's a take on what could've happened had Juliet decided not to end it all when she found Romeo dead at the end of their play. Instead, in this retelling William Shakespeare's (Stark Sands) wife Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe) teams up with her husband to give Juliet a second chance at life, based on what she thinks the girl would have actually done if she had the agency to.

Juliet (Lorna Courtney) ends up on a whirlwind, self-declared 'no drama' adventure with her Nurse (Melanie LaBarrie), best friend May (Justin David Sullivan) and Anne herself, playing the role of Juliet's other best friend. They head to Paris where a chance meeting at a party brings Francois (Philippe Arroyo) into the picture - leading to just as much, if not more, drama than they had left behind in fair Verona. Tensions rise when Shakespeare makes choices for the characters while Anne's away, leading to a series of new issues that all challenge Juliet's attempts to control her narrative and forge her own path.

It's an incredibly progressive, modern story - each character has their own plot to work through, and each is told in a way that still keeps them connected to the main story. Despite the original source material being one of the most well-known tragedies, & JULIET focuses more on recovering, self-expression, and the desire to not let one's past define their future. It's an empowering, inclusive story told beautifully (book by David West Read) by a diverse, powerhouse cast with gorgeous sets and costumes to bring it all together (scenic design by Soutra Gilmour, lighting design by Howard Hudson, costume design by Paloma Young).

In the title role, Courtney stuns. Her larger-than-life personality as Juliet is second only to her vocals, and she blasts through some of the most well-known pop songs of the last 30 years in a way that's completely her own. Not only does the role demand a strong voice, but there's a great deal of vulnerability in Juliet, which Courtney never falters in showing throughout the story.

Sands and Wolfe play off each other with ease as William Shakespeare and Anne, and they offer another level to the narrative that goes beyond Juliet's story. Sands is hilarious in the shoehorned roles that Anne places Will in, and Wolfe is a fiery, loveable Anne. She gives her the quirky, goofy energy one might not expect from the lesser-known wife of one of history's greatest writers, and transitions into the deeper, more complicated aspects of Anne's life and character with great respect and openness. At the end of the day, while most of the cast are fictional characters, Will and Anne were real people, and & JULIET balances fiction with reality through their perspectives respectfully.

As Juliet's new love interest Francois, Arroyo has all the awkward charm of an indecisive, unsure young adult. He's got a strong voice, a likable, personable nature, and he navigates through some heavier emotional moments well, alongside Sullivan's May as well as Lance (Paulo Szot), his pushy, well-intentioned father. Brief appearances by Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker) hint at the strains between Juliet and her ex, but Walker's boyish take on Shakespeare's tragic character makes for a loveable, boy band-esque heartbreaker of a character.

LaBarrie is a constant delight as Juliet's guardian Nurse. She's hilarious, protective, and fiery, and it's great to see how she navigates her own personal issues around Juliet's needs, leading to one of the most gripping and foundational moments in Juliet's story. In the role of Juliet's best friend May, Sullivan brings a loveable, vulnerable character to center stage. Their performance of May, who openly states they don't align with any particular gender, is heart wrenching at times, joyous at others, and endearing throughout. His performance in the role, and the role of May themself, are a hopeful indicator of more inclusive stories being included in happy, hopeful stories like & JULIET.

At first glance, it'd be easy to question just how a soundtrack of songs by pop icons like Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Backstreet Boys, and Katy Perry (music and lyrics by Max Martin and friends) could possibly work in a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. What's incredibly impressive is that the majority of them fit with ease, with some slight musical re-arrangements made to work better with an onstage cast. There are a few numbers that don't make as much sense when you really listen to the lyrics, compared to what's happening on stage, however they're all performed with an abundance of skill that make the entire show as much fun to listen to as it is to watch.

& JULIET is, at its core, a really fun night at the theatre. It's self-aware enough to celebrate the moments where it's breaking the fourth wall, but there's a depth to the story that's woven through so well you might not notice it at some points. & JULIET allows Juliet, along with the other female and non-gender conforming characters, the chance to speak their minds, to express themselves however they want, and the opportunity to write their own futures outside of what a man in a position of power (in this case, Shakespeare himself) imagines for them. The fact that the cast and creative team behind the production has been able to combine all of that with a soundtrack of poppy hits, tear-jerker moments, and lines that had opening night's audience cheering, applauding, and encouraging characters mid-scene is nothing short of impressive.


Mirvish's & JULIET runs through August 14 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St W, Toronto, ON. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.mirvish.com/shows/juliet

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy




From This Author - Isabella Perrone

Isabella Perrone is a writer with a love for musicals and theatre that goes all the way back to her childhood. Born and raised in St. Catharines, ON, she would blast Broadway cast albums at home on... (read more about this author)


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