Update 4/11/13: The Old Globe in San Diego will open its 2013-14 season in the fall with The Last Goodbye playing from September 20 to November 3, 2013. Currently fine-tuning the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical “Here Lies Love” (also a WTF event in June 2012 Preview Here)for its April 23 opening at the Public Theater, director Alex Timbers (Peter and the Starcatcher) signed on to the Buckley project and has shepherded it through two years of developmental workshops since the Williamstown premiere. He will team with choreographer Sonya Tayeh (So You Think You Can Dance) and music director/orchestrator Kris Kukul on the production. (LM)

Review: The Last Goodbye at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
by Larry Murray

The Last Goodbye photos: (Top) Damon Daunno, Kelli Barrett, Photo by Sam Hough. No 1: Jesse Lenat, Photo by Sam Hough; No 2: Chloe Webb, Kelli Barrett, Photo by Sam Hough; No. 3: Jo Lampert, Photo by Sam Hough; No 4: Michael Park, Merle Dandridge, Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Since its first preview, The Last Goodbye at the Williamstown Theatre Festival has created a sensation. When I arrived at the theatre there was a line at the box office, and when I left there was another line for the evening performance.

With the public clamoring for tickets, The Last Goodbye has become the highest grossing show ever offered on the Nikos Stage. Judging from the huge number of performers, musicians and tech people involved in this production, even this sellout is unlikely to recoup more than half the costs involved. You should do whatever you can to try to see this show, there are clearly bigger things in store for it since it has all the ingredients for a Broadway show or even a film.

Still ticket sales, as impressive as they may be, are only one measure of a show, a popularity contest if you will. What is important is what happens on the stage, and in a sense, this is a show that simply can not fail. After all, its book is by William Shakespeare, and this musical version of his classic Romeo and Juliet is far from the first ever undertaken. The music and lyrics are written (mostly) by Jeff Buckley, a gifted artist who died prematurely and left just one album, “Grace” behind. It contained only ten songs, and the show is supplemented with others from a second album he had worked on.

The Last Goodbye begins with music and projections of  Shakespeare’s words on a scrim which soon gives way to the town square where the rough and tumble of the rival Montague and Capulet families is played out. Within minutes the fighting gangs are dancing, just like in West Side Story, only very different. The choreography by Sonja Tayeh seems more internal and angst driven while that of Jerome Robbins created in the Bernstein version always felt optomistic and upbeat.

In fact, this Romeo and Juliet, as you can see from the images, is very emo in its concept, not bubbly as Broadway tends to be. What is amazing is how perceptive the choreography is in capturing the sturm und drang of contemporary American life. You could see the connection being made with the younger members of the audience. Subtle things like the orchestrations and arrangements of Buckley’s music by Kris Kukel were brilliantly matched to our modern ears, carrying the hot passions of love and longing that are embedded in Buckley’s words.

The set on stage was a wonder to behold in both its simplicity and complexity. Any Shakespeare buff would immediately recognize its shape as an echo of the Old Globe theatre, with its balcony, arcades and numerous windows and entrance points. In the middle of it, covered by layers of posters and grafitti is a rose window which is revealed halfway through the show, which turns the town square into the crypt of a chapel.

But for all the brilliance of the set, the music, the book and the acting (more about that in a moment) it is the direction of Michael Kimmel that simply floored me. During the opening and closing scenes, and several key points in the retelling of the story, he indulged the audience in the experience of what theatre will be in the future, multi-layered with more than one thing happening on stage at one time.

To back up a bit, much of theatre is based on each person taking their turn in the spotlight, the others not upstaging the actor who is talking. Little bits of business might go on with an actor quietly trimming a plant or sitting with a book in the lap and looking up once in a while, but the rule for hundreds of years is not to distract from the central figure, but rather to amplify him, to focus everyone’s attention of that person.

In these multitasking times the old rules are, well, out of date. People simply don’t behave that way anymore, and some offerings like Cirque du Soleil have discovered that ticket buyers like to have several things going on at once, even as the “main act” has the giant share of the spotlight.

So in The Last Goodbye, songs are sung from the balcony as dancers move about down below, sometimes dancing in slow motion, sometimes freezing in place, or even going hyper. Little details like spraying some graffiti, making ritual votive light offerings and a hundred other bits of business give the eye something more to enjoy than just a soliloquy.  These multiple action scenes were a total joy to behold, but they also had the effect of making the purely Shakespearean scenes often seem dull and dry by comparison.

The famous balcony scene between Kelli Barrett’s Juliet and Damon Daunno’s Romeo was refreshing in its originality – in both the reading and the action. Daunno virtually leaped up to meet his love, and Juliet in turn fairly jumped out of  her skin in joy. But there was a problem in that not all of the text scenes worked equally well. This of course reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the various cast members. This production demands incredibly talented performers who have to sing, dance and not only act, but deliver Shakespeare in a credible way. That’s tough to do just by itself.

About two-thirds of the way through the first act, then, as the text began to dominate, and the multi-level action was put aside to focus on The Bard, things dragged a bit. Part of it was the relatively unsophisticated delivery of Shakespeare’s lines, and part was the abrupt stopping of the musical for the expository sections of the script. In a sense, all that action spoiled us as an audience and I for one couldn’t wait for the music to begin again.

One of the most interesting things about The Last Goodbye was the lack of audience applause following each number as is traditional in theatre. Not that there isn’t any, but apparently it varies by show. At the performance I saw, Kelli Barrett’s “What Will You Say” stopped the show, while in the previous performance it was Tybalt’s “Haven’t You Heard.”  This is likely due to the fact that Buckley’s songs are not written for the theatre, they don’t build to the usual climax where audiences are conditioned to applaud. Neither does the direction take a pause to allow for it.

The music itself, played by a six piece ensemble is extraordinary, for what you have is both a rock band with guitars and drums and a string trio with violin, cello and bass. This aided the cinematic feeling of the show, with many scenes aided by either the urgent beating of a vamping rock band, or the sweet sonorities of the strings to soften a passage. And when the band was at concert volume, with the company of 14 singing at full tilt, the theatrical lights flashing, the fog machine pumping, well, those are the moments that lift you right out of your seat and send you to that special place in heaven that you can find, once in a great while, on earth.

There may be some minor problems still to be worked out with The Last Goodbye, and given more than the scant rehearsal time they had to prepare this show, they will undoubtedly be addressed. In the meantime, let the word go forth: this is damn fine entertainment, and deserving of success beyond the Berkshires. Once again, our thanks have to go to WTF’s artistic director Nicholas Martin, Joe Finnegan the company manaager, and the board of WTF  for having given it a chance not only to be born, and to spring to life, but in an absolutely glorious production.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents The Last Goodbye, Conceived, Adapted and Directed by Michael Kimmel, Music and Lyrics by Jeff Buckley, Scenic Designer – Michael Brown, Costume Designer – Anne Kennedy, Lighting Designer – Ben Stanton, Sound Designer – Ken Travis, Choreography by Sonya Tayeh, Music Direction by Kris Kukul.

Band: Violin – Ellen Gronningen, Cello – Alon Bisk, Bass – Andrew Goodsight, Guitars – David Cinquegrana, Julian Maile, Drums – Ian Paj.

Cast: Juliet – Kelli Barrett, Benvolio – Nick Blaemire, Rosaline – Celina Carvajal, Lady Capulet – Merle Dandridge, Romeo – Damon Daunno, Paris/Gregory – Tom Hennes, Prince – Max Jenkins, Mercutio – Jo Lampert, Friar – Jesse Lenat, Lady Montague – Deb Lyons, Apothecary/Servant/Sampson – Grace McLean, Lord Capulet – Michael Park, Tybalt – Ashley Robinson, Nurse – Chloe Webb.

August 5-20, 2010, Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA. About two and one half hours with one intermission.  www.wtfestival.org

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