Romeo and Juliet may have fallen in love countless times before, but perhaps never quite so stunningly as they do to the songs of Jeff Buckley in The Last Goodbye, the 2010 Williamstown Theatre Festival hit now being given a splashy Broadway-ready production at San Diego’s Old Globe.

The_Last_Goodbye13_print Those familiar only with Buckley’s exquisite cover of Leonard Cohen’s elegiac “Hallelujah” (which has underscored TV series as diverse as The West Wing, The O.C., and Ugly Betty) may be surprised that this amalgamation of Shakespeare and Buckley makes for a rock musical at its hard-rockingest, particularly as performed (to musical director Kris Kukul’s electrifying orchestrations and arrangements) by the extraordinary young New York cast who take center stage at the Old Globe.

Conceiver/adapter Michael Kimmel finds ways to integrate Jeff Buckley’s most widely known compositions and covers including “The Last Goodbye, “Lover You Should Have Come Over, “Forget Her,” “Eternal Life, “Grace,” and of course “Hallelujah” and lesser known Buckley gems like “All Flowers In Time,” “Corpus Christi Carol,” and “New Year’s Prayer” into Shakespeare’s classic text, and if Buckley’s contemporary syntax doesn’t match The Bard’s Elizabethan English, then nobody’s complaining, or at least nobody was in Sunday’s wildly enthusiastic Opening Night audience.

That being said, it is impossible for this reviewer (as it would be for anyone else relatively unfamiliar with Buckey’s song catalog) to tell you which song is used when and how or sung by whom as the program provides only an alphabetical list of titles.

The_Last_Goodbye6_print Under Alex Timbers’ galvanizing direction, performances on The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage couldn’t be more exciting, with boyishly sexy Jay Armstrong Johnson and petite blonde beauty Talisa Friedman making indelible impressions as Romeo and Juliet with acting chops to match their vocal gifts.

The_Last_Goodbye12_print Supporting performances are stunners as well, particularly those of young male triple-threats Hale Appleman (Mercutio), Brandon Gill (Benvolio), Eric Morris (Paris), and Jeremy Woodard (Tybalt), who like Armstrong not only hit those stratosphere-high notes I’m told Buckley was renowned for, but execute Sonya Tayeh’s supremely athletic choreography to tireless perfection. (With knives and swords and various other weapons a-flailing, it’s hard to say where Tayeh’s choreography ends and Kate Waters’ fight direction begins.) Male ensemble members James Brown III (dance and fight captain), Billy Bustamante, Drew Foster, Adam Perry, Steve Schepis, and Nik Walker provide equally indefatigable support.

The_Last_Goodbye20_print Older cast members Stephen Bogardus (Friar Laurence), Nancy Snow Carr (Lady Montague), Shannon Cochran (Lady Capulet), Bryan Scott Johnson (Montague), Daniel Oreskes (Capulet), Tonye Patano (Nurse), and Wallace Smith (Prince) are as agile with Shakespeare’s poetry as they are with Buckley’s melodies. An offstage Megan Carmitchel provides additional vocals. Bradley Gibson is swing.

Offering thrilling musical backup are the production’s onstage band (conducted by Kukul, who also plays keyboard) and sensational vocalist Adam Cochran (who plays electric and acoustic guitars).

The_Last_Goodbye14_print The setting may be “Verona” (time unspecified) but scenic designer Christopher Barreca’s striking multi-level stone arches, Jennifer Moeller’s contemporary black-and-white costumes, and Justin Townsend’s spectacular lighting design give The Last Goodbye a timeless/placeless universality, with Ken Travis’ crystal-clear sound design completing the Broadway-caliber design package.

Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum is associate fight director. Stage manager Peter Lawrence and assistant stage managers Pamela Remler and Amanda Salmons head a particularly large production staff, whose names are too numerous to be mentioned here.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Jeff Buckley’s life was cut unnecessarily short, the victim of an accidental drowning in 1997 at age 30. The Last Goodbye seems poised to keep Buckley’s music alive for many years to come.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
October 6, 2013
Photos: Matthew Murphy

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