If there were a rule book out there for new musicals, surely this would be covered in the first chapter:
The cast must be awesome.
Both burdened and blessed with the job of creating a piece for the first time, it’s their job to usher people through unfamiliar territory. It’s also on their shoulders to do something bigger than that—to convince a modern audience that their money is best spent on an artform that is significantly more time consuming, expensive, and demanding than say, watching Jersey Shore.
No two shows we saw this year illustrated the art (and the pitfalls) of casting a new musical like ones we saw at the summer theater festivals in the Berkshires this summer, Pool Boy at Barrington Stage Company and The Last Goodbye at Williamstown.
These shows couldn’t possibly be more different in approach. Pool Boy is a frothy trifle—the tribulations of a young singer-songwriter who takes a job as a put-upon poolside waiter at a chic Los Angeles hotel. The Last Goodbye is Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare’s text mostly intact and Jeff Buckley’s songs serving as its score.
Despite an overload of musical numbers—there’s a song about every eight seconds in Pool Boy—and an unknown story, the show largely succeeds. The story may be unknown, but its breezy charm is simple to follow and hard to resist (Pool boy serves drinks. Pool boy meets a girl…). The show’s stellar cast does the rest. Jay Armstrong Johnson is, as we’ve already mentioned, a major star. He’s in nearly every musical number (all 46 of them), and is tasked with carrying all of the show’s dramatic weight, but he hardly breaks a sweat. Sara Gettelfinger is equally strong as his glamorous, would-be seducer. And Sorab Wadia gets a plum role as The Sultan, one that requires endless comic vamping and at least two pairs of gold pants.
The cast in The Last Goodbye—and indeed, the show itself—is something else entirely. With both a well-known story and songs, and a style that borrows liberally from both Spring Awakening and American Idiot, it seems instantly familiar and Broadway-ready. There’s lots of youthful angst on that stage—and spray paint, tattoos, and premarital sex. Plus, this new musical doesn’t have the same problem that many new musicals have: its book is pretty much done. And has been done for several hundred years.
But even with all those familiar elements in place, this wailing, flailing show (Sonya Tayeh’s redundant choreography raises constant concern that someone might put out an eye) never quite gets off the ground. The problem? Romeo and Juliet themselves. And the nurse. And the friar. And basically everyone onstage. The performances are completely uneven, not just role to role, but within each role. Romeo, a character who still has a credibility problem after all these centuries, doesn’t benefit much from a semi-ironic portrayal by Damon Daunno. Yes, this production is supposed to be like, all modern and stuff. But giving the leading man an air of slacker-y cluelessness doesn’t exactly convince an audience that we–or the leading lady–should be falling in love with him. Kelli Barrett’s Juliet fares better, and starts off wonderfully, but a late-in-the-evening tantrum leaves you wishing not only for her demise, but also that she’d hurry it up.
It’s unfortunate, because otherwise, the show really works. Buckley’s songs are appropriately swoony and fiery, and work well to help tell the story. The modern take is a no-brainer. And Nick Blaemire is a bright spot as Benvolio–if only there were eight more of him on the stage to play every role. And indeed, with a different cast, The Last Goodbye could be amazing.
Whether either of these shows has a future beyond the Berkshires remains to be seen, but both seem like they would be at home on a New York stage–maybe with a few different names in the Playbill.