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Bloomington Playwrights Project: Romeo and Juliet

“Romeo and Juliet: A Shakespearian Music Drama” is having its premiere production at the Bloomington Playwrights Project, the theatre that inspired IU faculty member and composer Don Freund in his approach to Shakespeare’s classic romance.

The large and attractive cast features mostly IU grad students in principal roles, but with a generous sprinkling of BPP regulars and even some new younger faces. Theatre and ballet veteran Jack Johnson is the director a designed the simple set. The nicely varied period style costumes are by Toni Scroggins with Sarah Lynn Nail.

As I said, it was the Playwrights Project, its theatre and its approach to rich theatre experiences with a maximum of creativity with a minimum of resources that shaped or perhaps just fit composer Freund’s approach to “Romeo and Juliet.” He wanted to bring the resources of his musical training to telling the story, but he didn’t want to write an opera. He wanted something simpler and closer to a musical. In this production he’s stuck to his original intention to use a single piano for the accompaniment, though he says that more than one person has nudged him to orchestrate the piece.

The BPP production of this musical “Romeo and Juliet” is dramatically tight and moves very well on stage.  The lovers were lovely, the young blades sporting and feisty, and the family, familial. The formal neatly mixed with the informal. I was especially impressed with the balletics of the first fight among the servants, the neatly staged masque at the ball and even the tragic killing of the always charming Mercutio.  By the way, in some stagings of the play, Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio is an accident. It’s actually caused by the interference of the love smitten, peace driven Romeo, but here it’s clearly Tybalt’s dark side that prevailed.

Although there is simplicity in Freund’s overall approach the show itself is far from simple. There is some doubling in the supporting cast’s parts, but there are nineteen singing actors. The music itself is varied, complex and frequently challenging. I especially enjoyed the opportunities that Freund used to have duets with one singer repeating a word or phrase while the other went on with the dialog. The use of repetition to characterize a role did get a bit overstretched with the Nurse, but that was an exception. There was plenty of lyrical singing and a hit of the evening was a lovely quartet of the Capulet family around the presumed dead Juliet with Romeo from the other side of the stage adding a fifth voice.

“Romeo and Juliet: A Shakespearian Music Drama” by Don Freund plays this Friday and Saturday nights at eight and Sunday there is two o’clock matinee with high school sophomore Chloe Strauss as Juliet.

George Walker

After completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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