The Last Goodbye

The Last Goodbye
By Sue Gathman

One of the most challenging aspects of law school is maintaining some kind of work-life balance, keeping a toehold in the real world and not entirely losing touch with your friends, prior interests or those aspects of your personality that you jettisoned like vestigial limbs during your first week as a 1L because they weren’t necessary for case-briefing or issue-spotting.  The beauty of live theater is that attending a performance still feels sort of edifying – as if you’re still working the parts of your mind that help you tackle Con Law – while nonetheless providing a few hours of escapist fun.  With three stages suited to a variety of performances from intimate to immense, Balboa Park’s Old Globe Theatre is San Diego’s preeminent venue.

Hot on the heels of the Old Globe’s summer Shakespeare season, The Last Goodbye is an electrifying musical presentation of Romeo and Juliet, set to the music of late rock icon Jeff Buckley.  Yes, it’s a gimmick; yes, you’ve seen this story dozens of times before; no, not all the songs are a perfect fit, and yet somehow the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  This is a haunting, energetic, funny, tear-jerking and utterly moving show, and one you should not miss, even if you have little love for the Bard or his “star-cros’d lovers”.

While the music and dress are modern, the sets are gorgeously period, with stone walls, velvet-curtained beds and yes, that iconic balcony.  The language is likewise almost entirely original, save for a few mouthy asides from Juliet’s nurse.    Interspersed with the classic dialogue (“my only love, sprung from my only hate!”) are a dozen or so of Beckley’s songs, some performed by the upstage backing band and some sung by the individual players and chorus.

Some particularly apt matches are “Forget Her”, sung by Romeo (Jay Armstrong Johnson, utterly convincing as a lovestruck young man with a great set of pipes) as he shakes off memories of his former love before meeting Juliet (the phenomenal Talisa Friedman), and “All Flowers In Time”, a duet between the two doomed lovers on the balcony.  By the time Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” comes around, sung by the lovers’ grieving parents over their children’s bodies, there was nary a dry eye in the house.  The singing is uniformly fantastic, even spine-tingling at times, and Sonya Tayeh’s choreography – masked dancing, cleaver-fencing, street fighting, balcony-scaling – is great fun to watch.

The leads do a solid, believable job as teenage lovers, particularly Ms. Friedman’s Juliet, but the supporting cast and chorus are no less able, from the scheming, venal Montague and Capulet parents to the well-intentioned priest and the conspiring nurse.  The two families’ brawling youths steal the show, though, particularly Benvolio (Brandon Gill) and Mercutio (Hale Appleman), who spar with belts, kitchen knives and improvised bits of property, sing like angels, and in the latter’s case, die with great pomp and plenty of stage gore.

The Last Goodbye runs nightly, except Mondays, through November 3 at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage – that’s the one in the middle – at the Old Globe.  (www.theoldglobe.org)

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