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Shakespeare shake-up retells classic story

Michelle Fordice | Monday, January 29, 2007

The story of Romeo and Juliet has been reinvented time and time again in everything from the 1996 “Romeo + Juliet” staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, to the upcoming animated film “Gnomeo and Juliet” starring lawn gnomes and produced by Elton John, but some versions stand out for their memorability and appeal. Summer Shakespeare’s “The Romeo and Juliet Story: In Concert” brings the best of these together in a wonderful show that focuses on the timelessness of the love between Romeo and Juliet.

The production, adapted by the producing artist director of Notre Dame’s Summer Shakespeare, Jay Skelton, unites songs from Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo Et Juliette,” Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” parts of Shakespeare’s original dialogue, and an original narration. The music was provided on-stage by the wonderful thirty piece New Millennium Orchestra of Chicago joined by nine Notre Dame students.

Doug MacKechnie did a superb job as the narrator. In his role he took on nearly all of the play’s characters except Romeo and Juliet, simply but strongly switching from one character to another with a small change in posture or by using the occasional prop, such as glasses for Friar Lawrence. The choice to concentrate the action of the play not directly involving the two lovers into one actor was a wise one. MacKechnie was able to act as a soundboard for the love story around him so that the audience was allowed to concentrate purely on the love of Romeo and Juliet, leaving behind for a moment the other plotlines and themes of the play that are generally more conflictual.

The rest of the cast consisted of two pairs of lovers, one pair taking on the majority of the acting and the other the singing. Steven Marzoff and Blair Robertson made good use of their acting scenes to both pay tribute to the original Shakespearean dialogue and portray the youth and passion of Romeo and Juliet. Stacey Tappan, a Lyric Opera of Chicago soprano, and Jay Morrissey, tenor and Notre Dame alum, both rose to the occasion in singing the ranging parts between the opera and the musical. Together all four did a beautiful job depicting the love story and, most importantly, the transitions between the actors were smooth. Furthermore, by using multiple actors to play the same characters, as well as mixing the pairs, it allowed the audience to truly focus on Romeo and Juliet as a whole, and not one single production.

“The Romeo and Juliet Story: In Concert” seamlessly united a 16th century play, a 19th century opera, and a 20th century musical into a production that showcased so many of the interpretations of Romeo and Juliet that it actually reduced the show down to the essential vision of the lovers. In doing so, it proved that the story of the two “star cross’d lovers” would romance its audience no matter their surroundings.

“The Romeo and Juliet Story: In Concert” was a special off-season event for the Summer Shakespeare company whose proceeds went toward establishing the Dr. Paul A. Rathburn Scholarship Fun. Rathburn is a professor emeritus of English at Notre Dame who founded Summer Shakespeare and received both the Charles E. Sheedy Award for Excellence in Teaching (1983) and the Frank O’Malley Award for Teaching Excellence (1999).