By Diana Saenger“The Last Goodbye,” which opens Sept. 22 at The Old Globe Theatre, resonates with the music and lyrics of the late singer- songwriter Jeff Buckley. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” by Michael Kimmel, the show has heard one critic call it, “the most thrilling rock musical of the past 20 years.” Jay Armstrong Johnson takes on the role of Romeo. Talisa Friedman appears as Juliet.
“I played Romeo in my fifth- grade English class in Texas and that made me want to be an actor,” Armstrong Johnson said. “I had the part again during high school in a community theater production and still again in a student production at NYU.”
After seeing the world premiere of “The Last Goodbye” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2010 and being awed by it, Armstrong Johnson said he feels this show is his biggest break so far. His favorite part is the balcony scene.
“I love height and danger, and climbing up to a 12-foot balcony is fun,” he laughed. “The concept of the production blew me away. Buckley’s music was so epic and poetic, and the way it fit into Romeo and Juliet’s story is to forward the plot with songs that are specific to the characters who sing them.”
Kimmel has taken a few liberties with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” to create a pared down version that allows room for Buckley’s songs.
Two-time Tony Award-nominee Alex Timbers directs the show. Choreography is by Emmy Award- nominee Sonya Tayeh of the “So You Think You Can Dance” TV show. Orchestrations, music direction and arrangements are by Kris Kukul. “There’s no really big dance
number, except the masked ball where Romeo and Juliet meet,” Armstrong Johnson said. “So most of the choreography is based on actor- driven place; it’s subtle movement that paints beautiful pictures.”
Buckley was a singer-songwriter and guitarist whose work in the 1990s was creating a huge following. In 1997, a boating accident ended his life, but his legacy continued to earn him top numbers on the music charts, and Armstrong Johnson said everyone involved with the show has been impacted by Buckley’s music.
“One night, after an eight-hour rehearsal day with Jeff’s songs, some of the cast members gathered in one of their hotel rooms to listen to more of his songs; they are so special. He was a brilliant writer and his life was such an enigma. Many of us have commented that sometimes we feel like he’s here with us.”
Armstrong Johnson said he believes this show will enthrall those who see it.
“I think they will be dumbfounded by the music, how beautifully it fits with the story, and be amazed by the visuals in the show,” he said. “Alex is a mastermind when it comes to creating a world on stage, and along with the cast, direction, musical direction and choreography; they’re going to come away thinking they saw something very special.”
If you go■ What: ‘The Last Goodbye’
■ When: Sept. 22-Nov. 3, 2013
■ Where: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at The Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park, San Diego
■ Tickets: From $29
■ Box Office: (619) 234-5623
TheOldGlobe.org■ Insights seminar: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23. Free
■ Post-show forums: Oct. 8 and Oct. 16. Free