Here's a red-carpet photo from the VIP (which included, for some reason, at least one underdressed non-entertainment reporter) preview of Baz – Star Crossed Love at the Palazzo this week.
A red carpet says, “This show is a big deal, and here are some beautiful people to prove it!” Also speaking volumes: the lack of a hyphen in the title’s “star-crossed” (which, yes — let’s not argue! — is a compound modifier). It suggests where the producers of the show spent the bulk of their attention: on talent, rather than bothersome literary details.
Take the couple pictured above, Timyra-Joi and L.J. Benet, who play Juliet and Romeo, respectively. Their performances are astounding, seething with chemistry and vocal skill. All the performances are wonderful, actually. The singing soars and dancing — particularly the tango number — dazzles. The sets and special effects amaze. It’s a gorgeous, voluptuous production.
It’s also shallow, confusing and emotionally manipulative.
These problems are mostly due to the genre — if you could call it that. “Baz – Star Crossed Love is a celebration; a mash-up of music and moments from the greatest love stories as imagined by famed film visionary Baz Luhrman,” the news release says. It’s conceived by For the Record, a Los Angeles-based production company whose claim to fame, according to the release, is “turning the soundtracks of iconic filmmakers into an immersive theatrical concert experience.”
“Mash-up” is the lingo du jour for “medley.” “Immersive theatrical concert experience,” apparently, is public relations speak for “live music video.” So, if you decide to go, you’ll be shelling out $77 to $176 a ticket for, basically, a best-of album with fancy choreography, lighting and sound.
The show’s promoters are honest about this. The banner on the venue website announces, “The movies you love. The songs you know. … Featuring the soundtrack from Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby.” Judging from the reactions of the audience members around me, it’s also exactly what they were there for. They sang along. They cheered, and cried, right on cue.
Following along is easy enough when you’re dealing with an iconic tragedy such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Everybody knows that one. At least half of any given audience will probably have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in school, too. It’s less likely that they’ll know the ballet Camille or the opera La Boheme, influences for Moulin Rouge, which Luhrman co-wrote with Craig Pearce. I haven’t even seen that movie since it came out in 2001 — let alone been to a performance of La Traviata (Verdi’s operatic rendition of Camille) recently. So, I had no idea what the two main characters’ names were, or why the courtesan died in the poet’s arms at the end. (She didn’t seem sick?)
But, no matter. The actor, Briana Cuoco, has an incredible singing voice. In her trio performance of the song “Young and Beautiful” with Timyra-Joi and Joanna Jones (Daisy Fay Buchanan) you sense that there’s something important, possibly feministic, going on. The colors and sounds evoke courage in the face of oppression. You sit up, get serious. Then suddenly, bright lights! An upbeat tempo! Other performers pour on stage, dancing jazzily. The mood shifts to celebration. You loosen up. So it goes throughout Baz: one minute you’re crying at Romeo and Juliet’s wedding; the next, you’re dancing to a cabaret version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”
I don’t like this. I feel I’m being jerked around. If I want to careen from fear to elation to depression in the space of 10 minutes, I’ll take drugs or a rollercoaster. Maybe both. But when it comes to theatre, I have an attention span, and I’m not afraid to use it. Go ahead and bore me with the personal costs of class stratification. Take some time examining the sociopolitical causes of gang violence. That’s what I came for. I thought there would be Shakespeare and Fitzgerald. My mistake.
Instead, the writers have stripped from the original works practically all but the two main characters, surrounded them with dancers, and reduced their stories to the handful of elements that allow them to blend well on stage. Adaptations are fine — I liked Luhrman’s film version of Romeo and Juliet a lot — but this is a remix of abstracts of three adaptations, which, I should note, use cover songs as their scores. (What, exactly, is original here?)
Blame my college studies in literary criticism or my occupation as a long-form journalist, but I have respect for narrative, and the only thing this production disrespects more than narrative is Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The classic 80s love song by a musical genius, who recently died from a prescription drug overdose, by the way, is rendered an atonal, unrecognizable dirge.
And one last thing on that note: Privileged teenagers running around killing themselves and each other with semiautomatic handguns might have seemed glamorous in 1996 when Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes did it for Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. But it comes off as tone deaf today, when gun violence has become a daily, terrifying reality for too many people.
There’s that context thing again. Good storytelling is a bitch, isn’t it?