by: JK Clarke & Sandi Durell


    Producers of classical arts, from theater to opera, have been resorting  to various means to attract younger, more diverse audiences. The recent City Opera production of “Anna Nicole” — a telling of the life of the doomed stripper and reality television personality — is a prime, though rather successful example of a desperate attempt to raise money for and interest in a rapidly failing institution. And, despite a New York theater season with an abundance of Shakespeare plays, there has been a move of late, particularly in notable regional theaters with rapidly declining ticket sales (Shakespeare Santa Cruz is on the verge of collapse, for example), to appeal to a younger, hipper audience with non-traditional plays in contemporary settings. Case in point is the new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

This production, directed by David Leveaux, takes a dual approach: with both edgy, period ambivalent sets and costumes as well as pretty and appealing headline stars. The biggest draw is the heartthrob marquee actor, Orlando Bloom, star of both the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean film franchises. Though live theater doesn’t seem Bloom’s strong suit, and the lines of his face evidence an age far advanced of the teenaged Romeo, he achieves what he’s been brought on to do: bring in lots and lots of young women who ordinarily wouldn’t go see Shakespeare (and they were there in force, swooning at his every move). And, while Condola Rashad’s wide-eyed and naive Juliet feels more age appropriate (one mustn’t forget that Juliet is said to be just shy of her thirteenth birthday), and delicately lovable, her delivery doesn’t suitably evince the passion of Shakespeare’s very excellent, and suicide justifying, words.

In terms of performance, there were three actors who shone above the rest. Chuck Cooper as Lord Capulet was stately and commanding as both menacing commander of his estate and doting, but often nearsighted, father to Juliet. And the excellent Christian Camargo took a novel approach to his Mercutio, who’s usually played as a clownish punster. Camargo — looking like the unlikely offspring of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — turned his lines to a cynicism that was more appropriate to the situation: he despised the fighting (though he engaged in it) and mocked the pointless rivalries. That he is its casualty makes it even more pointed and understandable when he screams, dying, “A plague on both your houses!”

But the true standout was the amazing Jayne Houdyshell as Juliet’s Nurse. Houdyshell absolutely embodies the role, as if it were written solely for her. Her delivery is completely natural, and even a casual glance from her is worth several lines of dialog. When she finds Juliet dead (spoiler alert!), the scene is so riveting that no one watching dare even exhale. She has already lost her only child and now Juliet, to whom she is a mother more than anyone else in the girl’s life, is gone too. And we feel it.

Overall, it’s a very entertaining production, for the most part. Jesse Poleshuck’s set is a mixture of both impressive (a large frescoed Renaissance wall tagged with graffiti) and confusing (Juliet’s balcony looks like it could double as the prow of a pirate ship). And the unfortunate and unnecessary decision to raise Juliet on her bed twenty feet above the stage undoubtedly caused many in the audience to miss several scenes as they focused solely on her, fearing for her safety. And despite the acting high points already mentioned, there were some valleys as well. In one instance the exclamation, “What, ho?” sounds too much like a giggle-inducing pejorative than the interjection it was meant to be. Perhaps as the production goes on, such wrinkles can be ironed out.

Most importantly, however, this Romeo & Juliet really is an ideal production for introducing to Shakespeare those who have been reluctant, or not yet old enough, to experience it. The star power, the modern touches, and the accessibility of one of the Bard’s finest will not fail to enthrall even the greenest theater-goer.

 Romeo and Juliet. By William Shakespeare. Through January 12, 2014 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue). www.romeoandjulietbroadway.com

*Photos Carol Rosegg