Fun songs, but plot is Bard to love

The new Broadway musical “& Juliet” is “Six” minus five. 

Like that latter original pop-music-packed show did with the sextet of spurned wives of Henry VIII, this jukebox Pixie Stick, which opened Thursday night, has one of William Shakespeare’s ingenues, Juliet Capulet, reclaim her tragic story from her BF Romeo.


Theater review

2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St.

The 21st century girl-power revisions begin at opening night of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1597 London, when Shakespeare’s irritated wife, Anne Hathaway, played by the very funny Betsy Wolfe, intervenes. Why, she asks, does Juliet have to die? 

“Maybe she doesn’t kill herself just because he killed himself,” she insists before singing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys and making her husband, played by Stark Sands, redo his tragedy. 

Instead, as Anne demands, Juliet (Lorna Courtney) will run away with best friends May (Justin David Sullivan, the most emotionally effective performer), who’s questioning their gender; April (Wolfe), a character designed by Anne to insert herself into the silly story; and the comedy relief, nurse Angelique (Melanie La Barrie), to ooh-la-la Paris to go wild and find a hot new guy. And the Shakespeare frame story gets lamer as the show goes on. 

Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe play William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway going through a marital spat in “& Juliet” on Broadway.
Matthew Murphy

This sporadically fun musical from — where else! — Great Britain with a loony book by David West Read suggests this idea is somehow very feminist; that taking a dagger for your poisoned man is the ultimate failure of the Bechdel test. A bit self-righteous coming from a show that includes “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” by Katy Perry, dontcha think?

The key to enjoying yourself at “& Juliet” — and it is, indeed, an empty-headed good time — is to ignore the plot entirely and pretend you’re at a concert. And to have the bartender fill your souvenir sippy cup right to the rim with your booze of choice.

Making projecting your mind to MSG easy is the suite of pop songs by Max Martin, the producer responsible for boffo hits sung by Britney Spears, Perry, the Backstreet Boys, Céline Dion and others. Many of those radio favorites are crammed in here. Martin had a lot of No. 1 singles, but his bounty — narratively, emotionally, musically — is not as boundless as the sea.

Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker) and Juliet (Lorna Courtney, center) have unfinished business.
Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker) and Juliet (Lorna Courtney, center) have unfinished business.
Matthew Murphy

“& Juliet” is a millennial-seeking missile aimed at audience members, such as myself, who grew up on Martin’s catchy tunes. And those nostalgic memories are surely why the phenomenal young cast is visibly enjoying themselves a lot more than your usual company of “Jersey Boys” does.

But unlike the substantial story arcs of ABBA songs used in “Mamma Mia!” or the much more artful pop of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” (Elton John, David Bowie, Lady Gaga) a few blocks away, Martin’s music is frustratingly vague and static. With 29 of his songs strung together and orchestrated to sound roughly the same, the effect can be mind-numbing.

To help the score make a lick of sense in context, much of the show, energetically directed by Luke Sheppard, is set in the nightclub-like castle of Lance DuBois (Paulo Szot), whose cute son François (Philippe Arroyo) is pursuing both Juliet and May.

A flirty Juliet continuously mispronounces his name as “Frankie DeBoy,” a stupid joke that dumbs down her character solely to enable a forced boy band megamix later on. 

Lance (Paulo Szot) and Angelique (Melanie La Barrie) rekindle an old romance.
Lance (Paulo Szot) and Angelique (Melanie La Barrie) rekindle an old romance.
Matthew Murphy

Fifty-three-year-old Szot, by the way, is the unexpected best part of this confetti cannon of youth. Hearing the same soaring baritone that he brought to “Some Enchanted Evening” in “South Pacific” in 2008 used on a boudoir duet of “Teenage Dream” and “Break Free” with La Barrie is wildly funny. 

The rest of the show rarely is. Sometimes a song title will get a giggle, like “Since U Been Gone” when it’s trotted out as Juliet is shocked to see Romeo again. However, writer Read leans too hard on groaner dad jokes. Sands’ Shakespeare actually says, “Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.” Out, damned line!

Juliet’s future is also complicated by the surprise return of Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker, but played by puppy dog Daniel Maldonado at my performance). He belts out Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” which is a much-needed rock break from all the bubblegum.

Francois (Philippe Arroyo) and May (Justin-David-Sullivan) are caught in the middle of an unexpected love triangle.
François (Philippe Arroyo, left) and May (Justin David Sullivan) are caught in the middle of an unexpected love triangle.
Matthew Murphy

Courtney makes a kind, sometimes-geeky heroine who fabulously wails Perry’s “Roar.”

But as soon as she’s done, and we are busy wiping away the pointless confetti from our blazers and frocks, we wonder of the entire second act: “What just happened?” Doesn’t matter.

In Shakespeare’s original play, Romeo says, “O teach me how I should forget to think.”

“& Juliet” will teach you, Romeo. And all of us, too.