Just as political correctness has made it nearly impossible for a white actor to play Othello, the iconic films of Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann have conditioned audiences — even theater audiences — to expect Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers to be played by actors only recently weaned from their CW series.
Millennials, be banished! The 36-year-old Orlando Bloom is making his Broadway debut as the teenage Romeo — and unfortunately, that’s the least of the problems with director David Leveaux’s revival, which opened Thursday night at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
(FYI, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were each hovering around 30 when they famously alternated in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio in a 1935 production, although Leslie Howard clocked in at a nearly geriatric 43 in George Cukor’s 1936 screen version.)
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Uneven is the casting that pairs the competent Bloom with the woefully Bard-challenged Juliet of Condola Rashad, a two-time Tony nominee (“Stick Fly,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) and, for the record, 26 years old. You forget about the age thing pretty fast when Rashad begins to speak, because she immediately settles into a lilting singsong pitch pattern that forces her to swallow or otherwise mangle every third or fourth word.
Leveaux positions Juliet as the aggressor in this relationship, and with her broad style of acting and dynamic musical-theater features, Rashad often appears to be wrestling with Bloom rather than making love.
These two aren’t so much star-crossed as totally mismatched.
Bloom would be more at home in an old-fashioned production that offered up a hand-on-the mantel refined, elegant, graceful Romeo in the vein of Howard or (to be kind) Gielgud. But in this modern-dress staging, Leveaux has none of that, putting Bloom in torn jeans, T-shirt and, yes, that infamous hoodie. (For some reason, Rashad is decked out in white like Maria in “West Side Story,” ready for the dance at the gym.)
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He’s introduced to us riding a motorcycle (the fumes are pungent), his head encased in a black helmet that turns him into a Spider-Man wannabe. And sure enough, a scene later he is crawling down graffiti-strewn frescoes (the play’s still set in Verona) with head again obliterated by black helmet.
After those edgy touches are exhausted, Leveaux pretty much runs out of ideas for this street Romeo, and Bloom goes about offering up a refined, elegant, graceful, albeit rather generic young lover.
As Olivier and Gielgud learned decades ago, Mercutio is the better of the male roles, a fact that Christian Camargo (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” “Dexter”) confirms here. Camargo is so deft with the language and such a charismatic presence in a dissolute way that audiences will find his death the truly tragic one, since it comes so early in the proceedings.
Nice visual touch: This Mercutio and Romeo could be twins if Romeo also did a fair amount of smack.)
As the nurse, Jayne Houdyshell does her sitcom best. And Brent Carver’s friar becomes more intriguingly obsessed as the potions begin to flow. If only this kindly druggist had something to help Juliet’s mother and father relax. Roslyn Ruff and Chuck Cooper as the senior Capulets are so loud it’s no wonder their daughter always looks ready to tackle Romeo. But in this production, Paris (amiable “American Idol” runner-up Justin Guarini) is the real winner, having avoided marrying a real bridezilla.