For aficionados of the poster art at Joe Allen restaurant, there is now the Broadway kitsch of seeing Paulo Szot play the very senior member of a boy band in “& Juliet.” This jukebox musical opened Thursday at Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre after a run on London’s West End.
Szot, an erstwhile star of the Metropolitan Opera, won a Tony for playing Emile de Becque in “South Pacific, and he successfully recycles his French accent from that 2008 revival to play the father of Juliet’s love interest in this new musical with a book by David West Read and hit tunes by Max Martin “and Friends,” as the credits explain it.
The male love interest is no longer Romeo but a character named Francois (Philippe Arroyo) who is not the creation of William Shakespeare (Stark Sands) but his wife, Anne Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe), who thinks it’s sexist to bump off Juliet (Lorna Courtney) at the end of “Romeo and Juliet.” Anne concocts another story that has the Bard’s Juliet traveling to Paris to meet Francois and his father (Szot), who team up to bring back their boy band so they can sing “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” written by Martin and one of those aforementioned “friends,” Denniz Pop.
Long before Szot becomes arguably the oldest boy ever to sing “Everybody” on stage, Read’s book shows signs of doing to jukebox musicals what his “Schitt’s Creek” scripts did to wealthy families on reality TV shows. He skewers the genre, especially the female-empowerment theme that has not only dominated the songbook musical but Broadway in general ever since the deafeningly ponderous “Defying Gravity” first brought down the Act 1 curtain of “Wicked” in 2002.
Read’s best creation is Hathaway, especially as played by Wolfe, who brings a wonderfully anachronistic Midwestern hausfrau no-nonsenseness to lampooning her husband’s reportedly misogynistic plot. In the title role, Courtney is also expert at parody, effortlessly sending up every spunky princess weighed down by a Disney tiara.
The only major character misfire in Act 1 is when Read attempts to deliver a Big Message. While he has no problem sending up feminism and hetero heroes, he turns insufferably sentimental as soon as he introduces a nonbinary character named May (Justin David Sullivan), who quickly becomes a serious threat to Juliet’s new romantic interest, Francois. While it’s fun to see how Read crams “I Want It That Way” and “Baby One More Time” into the storyline, that bulldozing approach turns mawkish when Sullivan sings the Britney Spears hit “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” without a smidgen of irony. One would have to go back to the Joe Taylor character in “Jagged Little Pill” to find a showcase of such unwarranted bathos. It’s not progressive to treat LGBTQ characters with undue reverence. It’s patronizing.
The humor returns near the end of Act 1 when Romeo (Daniel J. Maldonado, subbing for Ben Jackson Walker at the performance I saw) is resurrected from the grave, and “& Juliet” returns to its satiric roots. Maldonado is even better than Courtney at replicating the over-emotive singing style of “American Idol” stars.
Luke Sheppard’s direction of his actors effectively showcases many of the more appealing quirks in Read’s characters. When Read’s book turns conventional with the nonbinary May, Sheppard turns on the automatic pilot to strand Sullivan in a swamp of schmaltz. Unfortunately, that sticky morass claims many more victims in Act 2. Why do sophisticated TV and film writers resort to hackneyed tropes when they write for the musical stage? Rather than continuing to lampoon the treacly bombast of most new musicals, writers like Read and Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous”) fall prey to it. Even the Hathaway character turns into a Celine Dion manqué, right down to the Vegas echo-chamber amplification to deliver “That’s the Way It Is” as some kind of anthem of oppression.
By the time Szot sings “Everything,” this musical is less kitsch than schlock. And very loud schlock at that. Near the end of the show, the musical numbers under Gareth Owen’s sound design include what feel like gunshots to enhance climactic chords. The sets and costumes are by Soutra Gilmour and Paloma Young, respectively, and the whole thing looks more than ready for a cross-country tour.