While we all read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in high school, few of us ever experience life imitating art. Such is the case in Brian Sutton’s Searching For Romeo, now at the Alice Griffin Jewel Bow Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. High schooler Roz (Justine Magnusson) finds out that her sort-of boyfriend Tony (Josh Tolle) is now hooking up with airheaded Julie (Sam Tedaldi). On the outside looking in is Perry (Dan Drew), who clearly loves Roz even though she only sees him as a friend. This classic trope turns interesting when, while reading the play in English class, Roz is transported to Renaissance Verona, where she becomes Rosaline, Romeo’s spurned lover for whom he pines in the beginning of the play before he meets Juliet. In this version of events, Rosaline is a poor, orphaned, distant relative of the Capulets, who take her in as a servant. After the Capulets’ party, she stumbles upon the famous balcony scene and witnesses Romeo and Juliet making love to each other. Thus she relives her contemporary fate all over again.
At the same time, there is Count Paris (Dan Drew), Juliet’s betrothed. While Paris tries to be the obedient son honoring the wishes of his Machiavellian mother Lady Avare (Natalie Newman), Juliet does everything she can to get out of marrying him, including falling for the first charismatic stranger she sees, marrying him, and faking death just to be with him. Paris is a nice guy who thinks things through before acting and treats ladies well. While not exactly a ladies man, he’s not the worst looking guy either. In other words, he is the opposite of Romeo. Paris and Rosaline also meet at the Capulets’ party, where Rosaline is preoccupied with finding Romeo and keeping Tybalt (Sean McIntyre) away from him. Although there is definite chemistry between Paris and Rosaline, they keep pushing it to the side in order to honor their current partners.
The concept is clever and charming, a retelling of the famous story as a musical comedy and from the perspective of the so-called losers of the story. The actors playing Tony and Julie play their Shakespearean counterparts Romeo and Juliet as shallow, horny teenagers, just as they would be seen in a modern setting. The play pokes fun at their brashness, jumping into marriage without thinking, and brushes off the sequence of events that leads to their deaths as young, stupid lust. Their opposites, Paris and Rosaline, are the level-headed ones, always thinking about the other person, and not wanting to hurt anyone. They clearly belong together. However, even after it is clear that Romeo and Juliet have paired off, there is still Paris’ gold-digging mother to contend with. Lady Avare is in a ton of debt and is counting on Paris marrying into money to support her expensive tastes. Her character will literally stop at nothing, including kidnapping her own son and pressing outrageous charges against his true love, Rosaline. Although the character is fairly one-dimensional, Newman really stands out in her performance and steals the show in her last number.
The music is mostly forgettable retro-pop. The standout songs include the doo-wop girl group numbers with the Backup Trio (Angela Travino, Alison Alampi, and Melissa Rose Hirsch), and Rosaline’s final number, in which Magnusson beautifully belts out her feelings for Paris. The lyrics are sweet even though they are mostly about hating love. Sutton really gets at those teenage feelings of rejection, longing, and betrayal, and hits the same chord that Shakespeare found all those years ago. It’s the very thing that makes re-interpretations of Romeo and Juliet so relevant even today.
Performances of Searching For Romeo continue through July 13. Check www.nymf.org for details on Searching For Romeo and other productions.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival continues through July 27.