The Academy Playhouse returned to business earlier this summer with a production of “Disney’s Frozen, Jr.” Now, director Judy Hamer is taking a completely different theatrical turn with a unique and supremely enjoyable take on William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.”
This weighty text, showcasing the power of love to overcome boundaries of society, family, and loyalty, is entrusted in this production to a group of actors comprised mostly of high school students. This bold and risky decision ultimately pays off well, with these young leads even going so far as to outshine the adults onstage.
The play opens on a shadowy street in a contemporary north-end Boston with the murderous Tybalt (played by Mark Roderick with mustache-twisting glee), shooting and killing a member of the Montague family, portrayed here as a rival gang. The Capulets (of whom Tybalt is a member) and the Montagues have been at war for centuries.
From there, the play’s attention turns to the introduction of Romeo, a lovesick teenaged Montague played brilliantly by rising high school senior Aiden Varnum. Varnum hits all the notes of a lovelorn teenager and manages to do so while still remaining entertaining and engaging. Romeo is promptly joined onstage by the enthusiastic and charming Benvolia (Sophie Friend) and the outrageous and charismatic Mercutio (James Dallas Williams). Friend and Williams make a fantastic duo, and their charm and camaraderie never fail to steal any scene they’re part of. Even apart from one another these performers are standouts in the show.
Mercutio and Benvolia convince Romeo to join them at a Capulet party, endeavoring to help him move on from his doomed romance with the initial object of his affections, Rosaline. At the party Romeo meets Juliet, played by understudy Maya Smith. Smith was given her role at the absolute last minute (9 a.m. the morning of the show, in fact) due to the unanticipated absence of usual lead, yet she still manages to shine within it. Smith’s chemistry with Varnum, coupled with a clear talent on the stage makes for a gripping performance despite occasional (and completely understandable) reliance on note cards. Romeo and Juliet fall in love at first sight, Romeo forgetting Rosaline completely, and Juliet abandoning her planned marriage to a man named Paris. The villainous Tybalt sees Romeo at the party, however, and vows revenge.
The Montagues’ trespass into a Capulet party does not remain unanswered for long. The young lovers scarcely have enough time to be secretly married by Sean Whalen’s unexpectedly hilarious Father Laurence before Tybalt confronts Romeo and his friends, setting in motion the tragic events to come.
This show succeeds at nearly every turn in not running into the problems one might expect. The novel choice of setting is executed seamlessly, without the usual awkwardness of many modern takes on Shakespeare. The teenage cast are all brilliant in their roles and handle the difficult text deftly. Adam and Mark Roderick’s set, made from the same structure as “Frozen,” is attractive and engaging in measures surpassing most I’ve seen at the Academy in years past.
The costuming is as snappy as the dialogue, with the standouts in my mind being Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo himself.
What does mar the quality of the production a bit is the music played between some scenes, a combination selected pop songs from the last 60 years. On every occasion I found it to be jarring and distracting, breaking my immersion in the play completely.
Other than that though, my gripes with the show are extremely minor. Some cast members are quiet at times, and Capulet never really manages to be as entertaining a villain as Tybalt, but both of these are background concerns at best. They do nothing at all to impact the brilliance and heart of this production.
Overall, the Academy Playhouse’s Romeo and Juliet’s charm, great cast, and “vaulting ambition” manage to “o’erleap” its very few flaws, resulting in a great production that skillfully brings the timeless brilliance of Shakespeare onto the modern stage.
“Romeo and Juliet”
At the Academy of Performing Arts
Through Sept. 7, Tuesday through Saturday
Information and reservations: 508-255-1963