- Photo by Matthew Murphy
Not even the songs of the late Jeff Buckley, revelatory though they are 16 years after his death, can significantly reanimate Romeo and Juliet, the well-worn tale of star-crossed love that long ago crossed the precipice from over-familiar to trite.
There’s nothing wrong with adapter Michael Kimmel’s brainstorm: Take the small but impassioned canon of Buckley—he recorded only one studio album, “Grace,” before his death—and integrate it with Shakespeare’s most famous story of love and longing. Add a director with serious credentials—Alex Timbers—plus a choreographer like Sonya Tayeh, and you have a Romeo and Juliet for the millennial generation, ironically a generation for whom Buckley is a mere name.
While the fruit of this conception, The Last Goodbye, is unquestionably a rousing and often affecting piece of theater, the synergy between Shakespeare and Buckley is an uneasy one. There are moments when a Buckley song—“Forget Her,” “All Flowers in Time,” “You and I”—is so richly part of the narrative that you’d swear Shakespeare had a hand in it. However, especially in Act 1, the songs seem present more to punch up the action than to heighten the resonance of the drama. Drums or guitar riffs played while actors are speaking can be distracting. The presence of the band behind the stage rather than in the pit is, too, though this is routinely done in rock-infused stage productions.
As Romeo and Juliet, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Talisa Friedman are young, sexy and very much imbued with the spirit of Buckley’s songwriting, Friedman in particular. Under Timbers’ direction, their courtship and lovemaking is intensely passionate. An arched, two-story set makes use of Johnson’s athleticism, and the reprise of the show’s title song is an aching ballad for the earthly, if not eternal, separation of “Juliet and her Romeo.”
The choice of “Hallelujah,” the song written by Leonard Cohen but popularized by Buckley, for the close of The Last Goodbye is a curious and perhaps brave one. The reconciliation of the families is celebrated, yet the lovers lie dead in their midst. Should that be celebrated, too, that ones so young loved so deeply and died in each other’s arms? Still, as the song goes, “Love is not a victory march.” The Last Goodbye runs through Nov. 3 at The Old Globe Theatre. $29 and up. oldglobe.org
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity: Ion Theatre’s political satire finds a TV-wrestling promoter casting a protagonist wrestler’s young Indian-American protégé as a terrorist character called The Fundamentalist. Opens Oct. 12 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Priscilla Queen of the Desert: In an adaptation of the fantastic 1994 cult movie, two drag queens and a transsexual traverse the Australian Outback, bound for a gig. It’s for folks who like their disco performed by cross-dressers. Presented by Broadway San Diego, it runs Oct. 15 through 20 at the Civic Theatre, Downtown. broadwaysd.com
The Tallest Tree in the Forest: Daniel Beaty stars in his own one-man musical about the life of Paul Robeson, an early-20th-century football player, actor, singer and civil-rights activist who ended up getting blacklisted in the era of McCarthyism. Opens Oct. 10 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Logan Heights: The local premiere of a play, by Josefina Lopez (Real Women Have Curves), about an immigrant family living in the titular San Diego neighborhood. Through Oct. 12 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
A Weekend with Pablo Picasso: Herbert Siguenza brings the legendary modern artist back to life in a one-man show. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through Oct. 13 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
Ain’t Misbehavin’: San Diego Musical Theatre presents this tribute to jazz pianist, singer and composer Fats Waller, essentially a revue of 1920s and ’30s swing music. Through Oct. 13 at the Birch North Park Theatre. sdmt.org
The Amish Project: A one-woman play inspired by the killing of five girls at a Pennsylvania school seven years ago. Presented by Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, it runs through Oct. 20 at 10th Avenue Theatre in East Village. moolelo.net
The Few: This is a world premiere of a comedy about a small-town Idaho newspaper publisher who returns after four years to find that things have changed. Through Oct. 27 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
The Important of Being Earnest: Two guys, named Jack and Algernon, pretend to be named Earnest to win over a couple of ladies who’ve got a thing for the name. Oscar Wilde’s funniest play, presented by Cygnet Theatre, runs through Oct. 27 at Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.org
Travesties: Aging Henry Carr recalls WWI-era Zurich, where he was acquainted with James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism—and he does so by way of Oscar Wilde. Kooky? Well, that’s Tom Stoppard for ya. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through Oct. 27 at the Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
Wait Until Dark: Three no-goodniks attempt to steal a doll secretly containing heroin from a too-clever blind woman. Through Oct. 27 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
The Last Goodbye: Dig Jeff Buckley? How about Shakespeare? Get some of both from this modern take on Romeo and Juliet set to Buckley’s music. Runs through Nov. 3 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Wit: An English professor dying from cancer reflects on her life during her final hours. Through Nov. 17 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net