★★★★★ - Irresistible
William Shakespeare’s tragedy about star-crossed lovers “Romeo and Juliet” is so familiar that it doesn’t hold many surprises. Most of us know how it ends.
What’s surprising is how fresh the tale feels in the hands of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director James Canfield. His 1989, streamlined choreography of the story ballet, set to the 1935 score of Sergei Prokofiev, closes NBT’s 44th season with an exquisite, visually stunning presentation that cuts straight to the heart of the story by focusing on the joy and devastation of first love. It’s like watching the pages of a Gothic storybook come vividly to life on an almost cinematic scale.
The show opens with a striking stage picture, the tableau. Under sepulchral spotlights performers pose, shifting positions as the voice of a narrator (Scott Coopwood) introduces their characters one by one and also sets a foreboding tone speaking Shakespeare’s introductory prose.
Michelle Meltzer dances Juliet at first with giddy, adolescent energy as she cavorts with her confidant Nurse, played by Krista Baker with clownish charm. Her parents Lord and Lady Capulet, played solemnly by Steven Goforth and Christina Ghiardi, tower imposingly over everyone, symbolic of their aristocratic wealth and clout.
They are hosting a ball to introduce Juliet to her fiancé Paris, danced regally and perfectly plainly by Morgan Stillman. Three young Montague-allied mischief makers Romeo, danced with spirited good nature by Benjamin Tucker, his cousin Benvolio, danced as a peace-keeping wingman by David Hochberg, and their friend Mercutio, danced with cocky humor by the charismatic Stephan Azulay, conspire to crash the party.
The boys make a precocious trio and perform athletic and dynamic choreography with excellent tours en l’air, pirouettes, and cabrioles danced solo and in combination to express their youthful, hormone-driven personalities.
Prokofiev’s ominous “Dance of the Knights” exalts the Capulet Ball and its ornate balcony set against a ruby red backdrop. The guests perform a pretentious courtly dance, and Juliet and Paris present an awkward pas de deux. An ebullient Juliet then chainés across the stage almost bumping into Romeo, and it’s love at first sight.
The mesmerized pair find themselves in a shy duet as the ballroom scene blurs away with the revelers silhouetted upstage, moving in slow motion. It’s a wonderful effect reminiscent of the gym dance in the film “West Side Story” when Maria and Tony meet for the first time and the world around them ceases to exist.
But Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, played with haughty disdain by Sergio Alvarez, is having none of it. Alvarez defines the character with amazing economy. A sharp flick of the hand withdrawn cruelly before a potential shake of truce with Romeo shows his menacing arrogance and the age-old hatred between two families.
The balcony scene is beautifully passionate as the pair share a dance of hopeful discovery featuring intricate overhead lifts of elevated love and a first kiss while bathed in the beams of a full harvest moon.
The villagers perform a joyous folk dance in the marketplace, hopping and skipping as they form circles and lines with arms intertwined. The tension is palpable during the sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, exciting and expertly choreographed. Mercutio’s death is heartbreaking, as is Romeo’s impulsive slaying of Tybalt, which ultimately seals his and Juliet’s fate.
When the second act begins the tableau repeats again, but the places where Mercutio and Tybalt once stood are bare. The spotlights shine red on their empty spaces and on the upturned palm of Lady Capulet, for she has blood on her hands.
Romeo and Juliet’s bedroom pas de deux is full of profound sadness as the couple know their future together is uncertain. There is a maturity and earnestness to their duet, with elaborate, acrobatic split lifts that show their despair at letting go. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, her autocratic father strikes and shakes her violently, and her mother shuns her. Even Nurse turns her back.
Friar Laurence (Jordan Mendoza) gives Juliet a sleep concoction, which she swallows after an emotionless duet with Paris. Juliet’s friends (Leigh Collins, Caroline MacDonald, Emma McGirr, and Katherine Zimmerman) perform a lovely flower dance at her bedside to wake her for her wedding. But Lady Capulet thinks her little girl is dead by her own hand, and we see the grief in Ghiardi’s face when she realizes her complicity in the act.
The final scene in the Capulet crypt is dusty and dank, with a giant Celtic cross overhanging the death slab and streams of light pushing through from above. Tucker pulls our heart strings when he carries a lifeless Juliet about in a deathly duet, and Meltzer is devastating as she cries silent screams of horror and wraps Romeo’s arms about her in her own agonizing moment of death.
The gorgeous stage images are made possible in part by the set design of Gene Dent and Gene Davis Buck, the costumes of David Heuvel, and the lights of Peter Jakubowski.
NBT’s season finale of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Smith Center features passionate dancing, thoughtful acting, and lavish settings.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Trudeau Photography