MATTHEW BOURNE’S ROMEO AND JULIET
Since Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is a romantic tale, and this is Valentine’s Day month, after all, I must begin this review by telling you that I’ve fallen in love at first sight just three times in my life, in this order: with Los Angeles, the second I entered it by traveling down the coast from up north as a teenager; four days later when I first saw Mr. X on stage from afar, and noticed only his wonderful talent, without even knowing how hilarious, charming, and caring he is; and lastly, a few decades ago, when I saw Sir Matthew Bourne’s astonishing version of Swan Lake, at the Ahmanson Theatre here in LA. They all just about stopped my heart in a nano-second.
And all three have proven to be loves of my life in perpetuity.
So, of course, I was jumping out of my skin to see Sir Matthew’s new-to-LA (and all of North America) rendition of Romeo and Juliet, after being fortunate enough to witness about a dozen of his earlier works over the years. (A major Thank You to the Ahmanson for presenting most of those!)
And, although I’m admitting that this one was not my personal cup of tea, it is yet another triumph for Matthew.
It’s his usual excellent concept, choreography, and direction. Even though each of his own very different interpretations of the famous stories that he chooses to portray is unique, Romeo and Juliet is even more so, in my humble opinion. And most everyone loves it.
I do, as well, but I have to be honest, (as always,) and say that it turned-out to be my least favorite work of his. But Matthew Bourne’s least is still better than everyone else’s best! So I’m grateful to have seen it. And given this marvelous opportunity, I suggest that everyone in SoCal do the same, especially in this Valentine month, (for which this is an interesting choice to present.)
Before I weigh-in on the actual production, this is the perfect occasion for me to share the lesson about expectations that Mr. X has taught me, (and I sometimes forget. So I hope that you keep it in mind always.) When we have low expectations of something, we’ll often be surprised by how good or fun something in life is. So we’ll wind-up with a better experience of that event. But when we have high expectations, we’re sure to be disappointed from time-to-time.
And that’s basically what happened for Mr. X and me with Romeo and Juliet. Because we’ve absolutely adored all of the previous works by Matthew Bourne, and haven’t seen one in just over four years, we were expecting to also go gaga over this one. But, despite the show being of his usual superior quality, it pains me to say that we were just a tad disappointed.
Five years ago, I ended my review of his stunning Cinderella with this paragraph: “Now I can’t wait to see what Matthew Bourne does next! No matter what it is. Hint—I hear rumors that it just might be Romeo and Juliet. So, no happy ending this time. Or maybe there will be one—you never know with Matthew! Which is just one of the many reasons I love everything he does!” So that handful of years built-up stratospheric expectations!
I’ll explain my tiny quarrels with the presentation in a moment, (and get to all the positives, as well,) but please keep in mind that I’m just being technical, and I’m thrilled to have seen this dance. I still highly recommend it to everyone. (And now that I will have lowered your expectations, you will love it more!)
Matthew Bourne always has uber-creative takes on each narrative he chooses to choreograph, (such as the swans being male in Swan Lake, which is just a start to the surprises in that ballet,) but this one was just a tad too odd for us. I felt that the whole thing was more David and Lisa than Romeo and Juliet, while Mr. X deemed it “West Side Story meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” (I actually heard someone at intermission asking when Romeo and Juliet was going to start!)
So that makes a lot of this version of the classic tale somewhat confusing. I had to keep reminding myself to not try to understand what was going on, and just appreciate the dancing and choreography, which is what I one hundred percent did.
As if the actual tragedy of these star-crossed lovers isn’t bleak enough, (I’m not a fan of Shakespeare,) the setting here makes it all more disturbing. The opening night audience members I either spoke with or overheard at intermission could not seem to agree on what exactly that setting is. At first, we posited that it was some sort of school, mental hospital, or prison, but I finally decided that it’s most likely an institution for wayward or “problem” teens. So just be prepared for that you may not understand exactly what the setting is. (Mr. X said that it was unusually cold for a Matthew Bourne production.)
And the program says that it takes place “in the not-too-distant future,” so, since it was first presented in 2019, does that mean now? It absolutely does not matter to the action, but it’s just one more little confusion for me.
I’m sure that my Crayon Room-owning self is the only one this bothered, but, as fabulous as the almost-all-white costumes by Lez Brotherston are, (and I literally want every single one of them in my own wardrobe,) I always need to see color. Granted, there is some (finally) in a scene of a social dance at the institution, but it still wasn’t enough for me. I was happy to see even the occasional navy and black. (But the cast is now all set for Diddy’s next famous White Party, where everyone has to dress in all-white! So there’s that.)
The last thing that slightly disappointed me is that Matthew Bourne’s works are usually filled with tons of humor, but this one provided only a handful of giggles.
All that being said, despite the depressing story and setting, there are still sooo many positives to Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet. Above everything, the choreography is a thing of beauty, as always for his creations. And the dancing is glorious.
Mr. X says the highlight of the presentation is “the mesmerizing ensemble dancing, which involves just about the entire corps de ballet.” He adds that the “intricate, almost-hypnotic movement is where Mathew Bourne’s genius shines brightest.”
There’s actually so much of that ensemble dancing that this is the first time I can’t single out many dancers. Except for Paris Fitzpatrick, (what a fabulous moniker!,) who is absolutely charming as Romeo. [Note: There are multiple casts, so not everyone will get to see him. Check-out the show site below to find-out how to see the dancers you’d prefer. But to be in this company, they all have to be exceptional.]
One of my perennial favorite New Adventures dancers is Alan Vincent, whom I first
drooled over appreciated when he starred in Bourne’s The Car Man many years ago. In addition to now being the Resident Director of the company, Alan dances a few non-starring roles here in Romeo and Juliet, which I was thrilled to see. Even though my professional crush on him is long-gone now, (I once glued my head onto his wife’s body in a picture with him to feature on my former TV show, with the un-jealous Mr. X’s help,) I adore that Alan and Matthew are still working together.
I especially appreciated how incredibly cleverly they do the very famous balcony scene, (which is perchance the one that everyone remembers from the play.) Kudos to them for that bit of creativity.
I also love that, rather than having someone compose a completely new score, Sir Bourne chose to use Sergei Prokofiev’s classic one. That gorgeous music has been playing on a loop in my head ever since Opening Night!
Here’s one suggestion for future audiences of this show: It would definitely help to research the action a bit before you see it, so you can just concentrate on the creative movement and not waste any brain cells on wondering just exactly what is happening, and which part of Shakespeare’s story we’re up to at each moment, (as I did!)
Also, try to stay in your seats for at least part of intermission—something interesting is happening on the stage then.
You have just a little over three weeks left to see this compelling presentation, so please do not miss it. And remember–Romeo and Juliet is an excellent activity for Valentine’s Day. Even if you’re not in love with someone of your own this year, you’re welcome to share my love of Matthew Bourne!
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet running through February 25, 2024
Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Avenue