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Chautauqua symphony, opera and dance companies create a compelling ‘Romeo and Juliet Project’

CHAUTAUQUA – The urgent and ominous strains of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” poured over the capacity crowd in the Chautauqua Institution Amphiteater a little after 8 on Saturday night, declaring the opening of the moving and wildly ambitious “Romeo and Juliet Project.”

The show, conceived and directed by Chautauqua Theater Company Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, combined the talents of her own company with those of Chautauqua’s symphony, opera company and two dance companies. In all, 150 performers breathed life into Shakespeare’s tale of doomed love on the amphitheater stage, and the result was often enthralling.

Benesch’s concept for the one-night production was to combine Shakespeare’s words with the music and dancing that they later inspired over the centuries from some of the world’s greatest composers, choreographers and librettists. The potential for success in such an ambitious approach was slim, given how easy it would be to get bogged down in the wealth of material and how difficult to transition from one art form to the next. But across three hours of graceful dance and music punctuated where necessary by Shakespeare’s starry-eyed language, Benesch and her many gifted collaborators pulled it off.

After introducing us to three pairs of Romeos and Juliets – singers Yujoong Kim and Rachel Sterrenberg, actors Brian Smolin and Arielle Goldman and dancers Pete Walker and Anna Gerberich – Benesch wisely uses one of Prokofiev’s most widely recognized pieces to rivet our attention to the stage.

Because the story of “Romeo and Juliet” is so well-known, there is a lot of latitude in the kind of interpretation a director might choose. But Benesch goes for the straightforward approach in this production by including all the essential plot points and dialogue, making it an equally appropriate choice for children who haven’t yet heard the tale and adults who are eager to see it from a new angle.

The incorporation of the musical selections in the show is masterful, as is the interweaving of choreography. At crucial moments – the balcony scene, the wedding, the tomb – all three pairs of lovers appear simultaneously, each of their styles melding seamlessly into the others. During the scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet, for instance, we’re treated to a dance number from “West Side Story,” which then melts comfortably into a selection from Gounod’s opera based on the tale.

An absolutely entrancing pas de deux between the gifted Walker and Gerberich emerges effortlessly from another Gounod selection, which in turn grows out of a section of dialogue (“What light from yonder window breaks...”) set to Tchaikovsky’s famous musical rendering of irrepressible young love and impossible yearning. That dance includes a wonderful bit of choreography by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux set to Prokofiev, in which the dancers lock lips and then execute turns without letting go – a cheeky and perfect representation of their magnetic and ultimately fatal attraction.

While the transitions from words to dance, or dance to opera, work well, it is sometimes unsettling to be dropped back into the comparatively earthbound realm of Shakespeare’s language, lofty though it may be. This is an inherent danger of the inter-arts approach – that the apotheosis of feeling that Prokofiev or Bernstein reached for in their work will make for a rude awakening when juxtaposed with mere human language. Benesch has dealt with the problem as wisely as possible, though, making sure the stretches of dialogue go on long enough to remind us that Shakespeare’s brilliant language inspired these artists in the first place.

The show also includes a wonderful entr’act, Duke Ellington’s “Star Crossed Lovers,” which eases us into the anything-but-comfortable second act. It’s a shame the production lasted only one night, but such is the ephemeral nature of theater. Here’s hoping it will return in some form to a stage in Western New York, and soon.


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