Shakespeare and contemporary popular music might seem like strange bedfellows, but his plays have a way of coalescing with whatever musical style is thrown their way. A rock version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" won the Tony for best musical in 1972, proving that not even the zaniest combination is off the table.
A curious experiment is underway at the Old Globe Theatre pairing Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" with the moody songs of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who died in a drowning accident in 1997 at age 30 but managed to leave a rich musical legacy that has spoken across generations. Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and U2's Bono are among Buckley's most ardent champions.
The title of the production, "The Last Goodbye," is taken from one of Buckley's songs, and there's enough chemistry between his somberly romantic lyrics and Shakespeare's romantic tragedy to make this project, conceived and adapted by Michael Kimmel, seem like more than a forced marriage.
When it works, it works hypnotically. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen often enough. The show's parts don't always neatly interlock, and to hide the obvious, the production, directed by Alex Timbers, creates a rather hectic stage palette.
Timbers is a master of infusing a pop sensibility into unlikely subjects. In "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," he gave the expansionist president an emo makeover and in "Here Lies Love" he staged the wild story of Filipino leader Imelda Marcos as an immersive disco experience.
Here the conjoining isn't as smooth. Because the structural challenge of linking Shakespeare and Buckley isn't adequately met in Kimmel's adaptation, Timbers has no choice but to opt for superficial solutions.
Justin Townsend's lighting, Kate Waters' fight direction, Jennifer Moeller's costumes and Sonya Tayeh's choreography — while striking individually — often seem to be competing rather than collaborating with one other. This is especially the case in the opening scene, when the Elizabethan language and the late 20th music and lyrics are awkwardly engaged in a tussle for primacy.
The staging, unfolding on Christopher Barreca's darkened set of brick archways that readily serve as vertiginous balconies, nearly blew a fuse in the first 10 minutes. Or perhaps it was just the neurons exploding in my overloaded brain. When any of the Shakespearean speeches in the early going went over four lines, the linguistic demands felt almost importunate.
"Whereto" is not a word you care to encounter amid propulsive guitar playing. The onstage band (conducted by music director Kris Kukul, who did the orchestrations and arrangements) pops in and out of view courtesy of a frenetic mise-en-scène that only compounds the difficulty of bouncing between modern and antique registers.
"The Last Goodbye" is most effective when Shakespeare is used primarily as a dramatic outline for the artful placement of songs that no matter how resonant with "Romeo and Juliet" are a far cry from the feuding world of Montagues and Capulets. When Jay Armstrong Johnson's Romeo gives voice to heartache in "Forget Her," the crushing sadness has him breaking into a haunting falsetto.
Talisa Friedman's Juliet hasn't the same vocal distinctiveness and her performance gets lost in the theatrical welter. She's young, bright and alluring and so seemingly perfect for Juliet, but mellowness is a liability in this bustling production.
The reason Romeo's melancholy makes such a lasting impression is that it's so athletic. If Johnson isn't scaling an octave higher in his singing, he's literally climbing up walls to get to Juliet.
Choreographic overkill occasionally takes over. A conjugal scene between the young lovers enacts their impending tragedy as an all-too-stylized erotic allegory.
Timbers' ensemble reflects the unsettled nature of the production's identity: Do the creators consider this primarily a musical or a drama? Hale Appleman's Mercutio seems to be giving a flamboyant concert performance while Daniel Oreskes' Capulet offers a traditional Shakespearean portrayal. Brandon Gill, who plays Benvolio, is able to do both, the exception in a show that contains some strained acting and singing.
But then this is a production that rewrites one of the most famous death scenes in all of literature so that Romeo and Juliet can reprise the number "The Last Goodbye." I'm no Shakespeare purist, but how would you feel about Cordelia joining Lear for a duet when, before dropping dead himself, he believes his daughter's corpse has stirred?
Some things ought to be sacred. "The Last Goodbye" has moments that allow you to appreciate the inspiration of this Shakespeare-Buckley union, but the creators need to rework their formula.
'The Last Goodbye'
Where: The Old Gobe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 3.
Tickets: Start at $29
Contact: (619) 234-5623 or http://www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes