Quick, think of famous surnames from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The Montagues, you say? The Capulets?
Well, you missed The Smiths.
Yes, The Old Globe Theatre’s ever-surprising, at times wildly contemporized new staging of the great tragedy makes room for a rock band led by that other British bard of romantic lamentation.
That would be Morrissey , the Smiths singer whose extravagantly self-pitying lyrics on “How Soon is Now?” serve as an emo anthem for the lovestruck young Romeo early in the show.
And is it really so strange? The way Romeo (Aaron Clifton Moten) pines for the unseen Rosaline before, anon, turning his attentions to Juliet (Louisa Jacobson) makes those woeful words “I am human and I need to be loved” feel a natural fit for this guitar-strumming troubadour of interpersonal doom.
It’s weird, but it works — as does so much of director and Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein’s expertly acted, boldly out-of-the-box evocation of the play (which actually takes place inside a giant sandbox, but we’ll get to that).
Edelstein draws a smart delineation between an upbeat, even fizzy first half, when hope still reigns and pulses race with the thrill of first love, and its somber flip side (an apt image for this very pop-music-minded production), when rage and vengeance rule and, ultimately, young hearts are stilled.
It’s all here — the ecstasy and the anguish. And if songs from an ‘80s new-wave band weren’t quite what you expected from this Elizabethan masterwork, just wait.
It would ruin the fun — and honestly, how often has that word been employed to describe this play? — to give away all the musical needle-drops; I’ll just say that at one point I found myself thinking the only thing missing was a riff from the “R&J"-based “West Side Story.”
Turns out I thought too soon.
Including the song “Hallejulah,” though, is really a bridge (and chorus) too far, considering that tune was the centerpiece of a Jeff Buckley-inspired musical version of “Romeo and Juliet” the Globe itself staged six years ago.
Still, blowing up the Bard this way requires a director as deeply steeped in Shakespeare as Edelstein is, and his cast seems committed to this out-there vision that nevertheless preserves the bones of the story.
Moten is particularly good at radiating Romeo’s near-giddiness when he enters Juliet’s gravitational field, and that buoyancy makes his turn to fury after the pivotal death of his friend Mercutio (a perfectly cast, zippily funny Ben Chase) all the more stark. (On opening night, Moten did make a little hash of the Bard’s matchless line about how love is “a smoke made with the fume of sighs.”)
Jacobson’s Juliet has a fine facility for the language, and traces a heartrending arc from early, innocent hope to steely, tragic resolve as the pair’s world spins apart in the second half.
Meanwhile, the Nurse, as played by Candy Buckley, seems to drop in from another world entirely — her agreeably bonkers take on the character is like a cross between wisecracking cocktail waitress and saucy society matron, and is so funny she made Moten break into giggles on opening night.
Others among the sprawling ensemble lend both levity and needed gravity to the proceedings, with standouts including Cornell Womack as Lord Capulet, Sofia Jean Gomez as Lady Capulet, Morgan Taylor as Benvolio, Carlos Angel-Barajas as the Prince, Yadira Correa as the hot-tempered Tybalt and Hallie Peterson as a hilariously hapless servant.
Jesse J. Perez (the new head of the Old Globe/University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Acting Program) is a sympathetic but forceful Friar Laurence, whose machinations can’t save the “star-cross’d” central pair.
Set designer Takeshi Kata’s vision of a sandbox at stage center (where Jaydn Washington and Veda Cienfuegos play in the first scene as the very young Romeo and Juliet) not only suggests childhood innocence and destinies yet to be shaped, but also carries ominous intonations of burial — ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The gifted composer Mark Bennett’s original music lends beautifully brooding atmosphere, often through haunting arpeggios played on piano high above stage left by Justin Gray.
Judith Dolan’s contemporary-glam costumes, Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and Sten Severson’s sound design likewise boost the mood.
And modern-pop notes or no, this is still a show that hits the heart in a way for the ages.
• IF YOU GO: “Romeo and Juliet” plays 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Aug. 31; then, 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 1-15, 2019 at The Old Globe Theatre‘s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. Tickets: $30 and up. (619) 234-5623. theoldglobe.org
— James Hebert is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune