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Oh Romeo!

A review of The Last Goodbye at the Old Globe

By Kimberly Cunningham

Oh Romeo!

Romeo and Juliet in The Last Goodbye

Jay Armstrong Johnson as Romeo and Talisa Friedman as Juliet in The Last Goodbye at The Old Globe. | Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Old Globe’s production of The Last Goodbye is a modern interpretation of Romeo of Juliet, with Shakespeare’s classic text set to the music of ‘90s rocker Jeff Buckley.

Conceived by Michael Kimmel and directed by Broadway “It” boy Alex Timbers, the production is an artful one: a world where young Juliet wears biker booties and cropped moto jackets, where the Capulet and Montague gangs sport tattoos and faux-hawks, and do their fighting with meat cleavers (costumes by Jennifer Moeller); the set design by Christopher Barreca is dark and ominous, much like the fate of these star-crossed lovers; and the pacing is quick and chaotic, reminiscent of Baz Lurhmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, circa 1996.

There is a lot to like about the show.

The chemistry between Romeo and Juliet is honest and emotional. Talisa Friedman is lovely and vulnerable as Juliet. (She’s also a real-life smarty-pants, having recently graduated from Harvard, and a dead ringer for actress Amanda Seyfried.) Jay Armstong Johnson (Romeo), who recently starred in Hands on a Hardbody at the La Jolla Playhouse, is reminiscent of a young Adam Pascal. In that vein, the overall production has a Rent-esque quality, with its rock music and tragic themes.

Oh Romeo!

A fight scene in The Last Goodbye

(foreground with swords, from left) Jeremy Woodard as Tybalt and Brandon Gill as Benvolio with the cast of The Last Goodbye. | Photo by Matthew Murphy

The choreography by So You Think You Can Dance’s Sonya Tayeh adds to the red-hot chemistry, and is predictably progressive and on-point. Tayeh is part of the dream team that gave this show its momentum, and, with her own personal piercings and Mohawk, seems like a great fit for director Alex Timber’s vision.

Oh Romeo!

Sonya Tayeh

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh at the opening night party for The Last Goodbye on Oct. 6, 2013. | Photo by Doug Gates

The challenge lies in the musical aspect.

Blockbuster musicals about sad things are a hard sell. There are exceptions to that rule, including the Rent comparison mentioned above, Next to Normal about a mother grappling with mental illness (which won several Tony’s in 2009), and of course, the ever-popular Les Miserables.

But generally, when people go to a musical, they want jazz hands, tap dancing, and happy tunes. (See our review of The Scottsboro Boys.) And when the mood is more serious, it requires a certain level of dramatic acting that can be tough to convey while singing.

In this case, Jeff Buckley’s thoughtful lyrics and melancholy guitar riffs suit the themes of Shakespeare’s original play well. Buckley has been widely praised for his poeticism, and Grace, his only studio album, is beloved by music critics and fans alike. The fact that Buckley died so young and unexpectedly in the 1990s is almost serendipitous and haunting.

But at times, especially in Act I, some of the music feels like screaming, which is probably intentional and matches what is going on plot-wise. Still, it comes across as—dare I sound like a total square—a little loud and jarring.

Oh Romeo!

The cast of The Last Goodbye

The cast of The Last Goodbye. | Photo by Matthew Murphy

The audience has to wait until the bitter end to hear Buckley’s most famous song, “Hallelujah” (originally written by Leonard Cohen).  It’s a showstopper—beautifully performed and well worth the wait.

Ultimately, the show leaves you with a heavy heart—for it is “a tale of such woe,” underscored by the real-life death of Buckley. But these qualities are also what make it a brave production, and an opportunity for the average theatergoer to take off the rose-colored Rogers and Hammerstein glasses and step into the gritty, dark world of Timbers and Kimmel.

The Last Goodbye runs through November 3. Tickets at

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