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Theater Review (MA): The Last Goodbye at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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Michael Kimmel’s The Last Goodbye is rumored to be heading to Broadway. And why wouldn’t it be? It seems a perfect combination – Romeo and Juliet, a classic tragedy that has held up to many modern manipulations from West Side Story to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet, along with the music and lyrics of Jeff Buckley, a musician whose physical and artistic beauty is only growing in his posthumous stature. A match made in Broadway Heaven following in the large footsteps of Rent, Spring Awakening and perhaps American Idiot.

However, powerful smoke machines and ever-present body mics (“Mr. Producer, we’re ready for our Broadway close-up”) are not what are ultimately going to bring The Last Goodbye its commercial success after the musical ends its run way up here in the upper left hand corner of Massachusetts. It will not be bass drum balloons of music – big gestures, grander poses. This musical about sex, drugs and rock and roll is certainly theatrical, but its triumph will be in its quiet moments – its Off-Off-Off Broadway moments. These will make you see Romeo and Juliet, a play you may have sat through countless times, in a brand new way.

The Last Goodbye begins with some musical numbers that would threaten to overwhelm it and its audience under a blanket of Broadway clichés, but the moment that Juliet (Kelli Barrett) stands on her balcony, overlooking the mourners at Tybalt’s funeral, and sings Buckley’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over,” all of Mr. Kimmel’s efforts in directing, conceiving, and adapting this endeavor are an exultation of musical theatre. Juliet sings:

Looking out the door
I see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners
Parading in a wake of sad relations
As their shoes fill up with water

Maybe I’m too young
To keep good love from going wrong
But tonight, you’re on my mind so
You never know

It is an instant of heartbreak, so much more so than the double suicide that ends the evening. Romeo and Juliet always ends in death. That is inevitable. It is the awareness of the upcoming tragedy that contains the heartbreak, not the poison or the blade.

According to Mr. Kimmel’s notes, it hasn’t been an easy project, as anyone can attest who is familiar with the caution that Jeff Buckley’s mother, executor of his estate, has exercised over the legacy of his music. Buckley died in a drowning accident, leaving behind only one complete CD and a lot of unfinished projects that now only add to the iconic arc of his own particularly tragic story. The idea of setting Buckley’s gorgeous music to Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers is an inspired one, made easier by Buckley’s concentration on the star-crossed lovers found within in his own lyrics.

Inspiration doesn’t always sustain the evening despite the marvelous efforts of a fantastic cast, every one of them seemingly capable of pulling off Buckley’s incredible vocal range. Damon Daunno as Romeo (below with Kelli Barrett) not only bears a physical resemblance to Buckley, but if you close your eyes, he bears an estimable audible similarity as well.

Unfortunately, diverting my eyes is something I found myself doing, not to better enjoy the otherworldly music but to better concentrate on the music which sometimes is at odds with the dance. There were many moments that validated the three hours north up the Taconic Parkway, but the choreography was not one of them. Please see above about opening-number clichés.

Sonya Tayeh from So You Think You Can Dance has brought in needed elements of rock and roll, but the dance numbers ultimately feel like extras from a “Thriller” tribute number have wandered in. Jerky movements, arms held up by imaginary puppeteers: the choreographic theme might be people caught up in malevolent emotions and determined by a more malevolent fate, but in the end, the payoff is a distraction from the issue at hand: the music and the story. Buckley’s sometimes overwrought music should be balanced by the dance, not pushed over the edge.

Choreography was not the only excessive aspect of The Last Goodbye. Rosaline (Celina Carvajal) as a dominatrix, anyone? Thigh-high boots with a zippered mini – all the better to make assumptions, my dear. The two leads are more conservatively dressed – in fact, a bit too reminiscent of 1961. Juliet’s dress, albeit it with a more modern print, would not have looked out of place on Natalie Wood. The same is true of Romeo’s Jets vs. Sharks tennis shoes. Is it Jeff Buckley or Leonard Bernstein we are about to hear? The rest of the cast’s costumes seems to have wandered in from antique MTV videos as well – back when MTV showed music videos, like “Thriller.”

This is a rock and roll show. The look, the intent may be the East Village of Buckley’s early career, but does it have to be a Twisted Sister vision of rock and roll? In a delicious gender-bending turn on Mercutio, Jo Lambert gives a knockdown version of “Eternal Life” at the end of Act One; it is a song and a performance that will bring midtown Manhattan to its knees with her, but the banal look does her, the song, and the role a disservice. Chloe Webb (above), an iconic rock and roll actor herself, is the Nurse in a wonderfully effective, understated way, but there is nothing understated about her aging rocker wardrobe. The Friar (Jesse Lenat) in his remarkable “New Year’s Prayer” represents a character and his persona more organic to the story and music rather than an erratic ideology of rock and roll.

Putting these undoubtedly wrongheaded criticisms aside, The Last Goodbye is a great accomplishment, a sublime concept made concrete. Notably, not only does The Last Goodbye offer Buckley’s famous interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” one of Buckley’s most popular songs, it also has the lesser-known gem, “Corpus Christi Carol,” Buckley’s presentation of a 16th century hymn. Sung by Tom Hennes, the performance elevates Paris beyond the pompous plot device to an emotionally true character. Over Juliet’s body, he sings:

On this bed there lyeth a knight
His wound is bleeding both day and night
By his bedside kneeleth a maid
And she weepeth both night and day

Dear Romeo, dear Juliet. I know that your one true love has just died, and you are desperate in your grief, but listen to that music. Jeff Buckley’s music. That, young lovers, is a reason to live.

Rest of cast: Nick Blaemire (Benvolio), Merle Dandridge (Lady Capulet), Max Jenkins (Prince), Deb Lyons (Lady Montague), Grace McLean (Servant), Michael Park (Lord Capulet), Ashley Robinson (Tybalt). Musical Direction by Kris Kukul.

The Last Goodbye runs through August 20th at the Nikos Theatre as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

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About Kate Shea Kennon