Play: Romeo & Juliet
Group: St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Through February 14
Tickets: From $17 to $38; contact 314-534-3807 or http://www.theblackrep.org">www.theblackrep.org
Story: The Capulets and Montagues move their feud from Verona, Italy in Elizabethan times to Verona, “a city much like St. Louis,” in 1968. The story is the same, however, as Montague scion Romeo tests fate with his immediate love for fair and youthful Juliet of the House of Capulet, strictly taboo given the long-standing hatred between the two families. After Romeo is confronted by Juliet’s cousin Tybalt a fight ensues, whereby Tybalt kills Romeo’s friend Mercutio and in turn Romeo slays Tybalt and is forced to flee Verona. Romeo’s confidante, Friar Lawrence, schemes to re-unite the two young lovers, but tragedy results instead.
Highlights: Chris Anthony, a St. Louis native and former Black Rep intern who now is associate artistic director of The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, has mounted a totally captivating version of The Bard’s romantic tragedy that is the best rendition I have ever seen.
Setting the tale in the late 1960s enables Anthony to incorporate a number of enduring Motown tunes in refreshing fashion, capturing particular moments with snippets of familiar songs such as Lifting Me Higher, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Just My Imagination and many others. Indeed, having the entire cast raucously rock through Grapevine at the Capulet party is a breathtaking and invigorating way to emphasize the vitality of the scene.
Anthony has cast the show excellently, led by standout performances by Sharisa Whatley as Juliet and the extremely impressive Nic Few as Romeo. Few imbues the smitten lover with ardor that fills every bit of marrow in his body, and the chemistry between him and Whatley is fully satisfying in conveying the tale of their characters’ ill-fated attraction. For her part, Whatley gives us a vibrant Juliet who is a typical teenager, with all her passion and piques of temper.
Other Info: The first act naturally is much more enjoyable and moves at a brisker pace than the darker second act, but the caliber of performances is consistent throughout. There is savvy support by Khnemu Menu-Ra as Romeo’s roustabout cousin Benvolio and a powerful turn by Patrese D. McClain as a hip and smart Lady Capulet, whose anger at her cousin’s death propels the plot.
Black Rep producing director Ron Himes offers a textbook interpretation of Capulet that ranges from the wealthy lord’s congeniality to a nasty display of ruthless arrogance and hostility toward his daughter when she balks at marrying the nobleman Paris. Linda Kennedy sparkles in a bit part as the seductive apothecary as well as a haughty Lady Montague, while Erik Kilpatrick is Romeo’s stuffy father.
Robert A. Mitchell smartly conveys the wisdom and friendship of Friar Lawrence, while Chauncy Thomas, albeit over the top too often, crafts a fresh and exuberant approach to the role of Romeo’s playboy pal, Mercutio. Tim Norman shows the quick temper and fiery resolve of Tybalt, while Andrea Frye does her best to steal several scenes as Juliet’s glib, worldly wise, take-no-sass Nurse. Others in the large cast include Sean Walton, Kevin Bailey, Dominic Richardson, Jonathan Ellison, Drummond Crenshaw, John Reed II and Lauren Liddell.
Sean Savoie’s lighting design beautifully illustrates the setting, whether a moon-filled evening or the bright lights of a Capulet bash, and Heather Beal’s choreography gracefully fills the stage most notably on the party numbers. Jennifer (JC) Krajicek’s costumes and wigs pinpoint the era handsomely, while Andrew Keller’s fight choreography is accentuated in the pivotal clash between Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo, although Benvolio seems all too easily harnessed in the background. As for Jim Burwinkel’s set, it’s a multi-hued if awkward panoply of sliding doors and walls that, while allowing access and egress to the action, also gets a bit wearisome and unintentionally humorous after a while.
For a delightfully compelling and clearly enunciated take on this familiar tale of love found and love lost, check out the Black Rep’s clever presentation of Romeo & Juliet.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.