Most people are familiar with “Romeo and Juliet.” Few, however, have seen the play transported to a more contemporary setting outside of Baz Luhrman’s sloppy 1996 film adaptation. A new production, now on Broadway, is adding a sense of immediacy to the play—as well as racial undertones—while preserving the 16th-century diction. Add Orlando Bloom as a modern Romeo, and the show’s anything but average.
With this version of the play, director David Leveaux plays with the Shakespearean model, staying true to the text while incorporating a 21st-century slant that makes the work more engaging and poignant. This iteration respects Elizabethan style, partially by including comedy and tragedy to add depth to the drama.
The most original aspects about Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet” are the sets and costumes. Actors wear outfits that could be seen on the streets of New York today, and the stage looks nothing like the Globe Theater. Graffitied backdrops scream of the metropolitan lifestyle, although underlying images of religious figures constantly refer to Italy, and thus Verona.
Bloom’s Romeo—who makes his entrance astride a sleek motorcycle—is a fickle but ingenuous youth, lost in his hormones and his love for Juliet, who’s played by Condola Rashad. Bloom knows exactly how to grab a chuckle from his audience, but his true talent is his ability to convey his character’s emotion all the way to the second mezzanine. Whimpers filled the Richard Rodgers Theatre when he ended his life in the arms of his sweetheart.
Rashad portrays a childish Juliet, but challenges the stereotype surrounding literature’s most famous icon of innocence. Leveaux, by casting an African American in the role, infuses the Montague-Capulet feud with racial tension, and the Capulet ball is filled with festive African dance and music.
While Bloom delivers with his performance, Rashad, on the other hand, is less than ideal as the joyous teenager who dabbles in love. The Tony-nominated actress certainly has a major task on her hands, as critics have questioned Leveaux’s decision to ignore tradition. Perhaps because she is under pressure, she overacts and underperforms. Her facial expressions are monotonous, and her character falls flat.
But the play isn’t just about the leads. The supporting cast is also essential—especially Christian Camargo’s Mercutio, whose unabashed sexuality brings out the character’s homoerotic humor. Meanwhile, Jane Houdyshell as the Nurse lightens the mood with tastefully delivered lines that imbue her with the biggest personality on stage.
Despite any underwhelming aspects of the show, it is still an idiosyncratic and innovative re-evaluation of “Romeo and Juliet.” As guests leave the theater, they experience the catharsis that Shakespeare intended. And even if they did not enjoy the new-age ambiance of the production, they at least saw Orlando Bloom in the flesh, and he certainly does not disappoint.
“Romeo and Juliet” shows at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through Jan. 12, 2014. Tickets range from $88.75-$146.75.