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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Review: If the Razzies included theater, ‘Invincible’ would be one of 2022’s big winners

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Whatever evolutionary gains have been made in the jukebox musical since “Mamma Mia!” arrived at the turn of the millennium without a thought in its moneymaking head have been erased by “Invincible,” the musical that mixes and matches Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with the song catalog of ’80s rocker Pat Benatar.

Reports of the death of the jukebox form by theater critics are typically more of a wish than an empirical observation. But this latest incarnation deserves to topple the entire category.

Producers will never stop trying to turn yesterday’s Top 40 hits into Broadway gold. Not even the most egregious disaster can thwart a would-be theater mogul with an oldies yen. But the lie is out.

“Invincible,” which is trying unsuccessfully to pull itself together at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, reveals the artistic absurdity of thinking that unrelated songs can be readily stitched into a seamless musical tale. Benatar and her longtime music collaborator (and husband) Neil Giraldo may not like the jukebox label, but they’ve fallen straight into the genre’s trap.

The musical, directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, at times seems like a malfunctioning karaoke machine. Tunes are triggered almost at random. Before the audience has its bearings, “Hell Is for Children” is blaring meaninglessly onto a set that is meant to be “modern, post-war Verona” but looks more like Stalingrad under a disco strobe light.

Bradley Bredeweg, who wrote the show’s book, ought to be indicted for crimes against Shakespeare. It’s not merely the sentimental rewriting of one of the most famous tragic endings in literary history. (Let’s just say Romeo and Juliet will now have the chance to realize that they caused a whole lot of hullabaloo over adolescent hormones and are probably not all that compatible.) The storytelling is all over the place tonally and temporally.

Characters speak in modern slang, Shakespearean verse, ’80s pop lyrics and that timeless argot of clumsy melodrama. The world that is created makes no sense. Riot gear meets scimitar in the streets of Verona, where the civil war between the Montagues and the Capulets has technically ended but hostilities persist in a musical no man’s land.

I thought the nadir of my theatergoing year was safely behind me. But the Wallis has plunged me back to depths I haven’t experienced since the Beverly Hills venue’s ghastly production of “King Lear” in the spring.

In that review, I was thrust into the role of coroner, examining the wreckage to figure out how such a horrible fate could have befallen Shakespeare’s masterpiece. My duties here are less forensic but no less solemn. As undertaker of “Invincible,” I have decided it would be best to proceed with a closed casket.

There’s no point in rehashing a musical that dips into “Romeo and Juliet” as though it were a salad bar that could be enjoyed in any combination. Twists in the plot, when not inducing laughter, elicit little more than a yawn. But how could it be otherwise when the story is in continual service to a song catalog that seems to come from an entirely different aesthetic universe?

I haven’t yet seen “& Juliet,” the comic riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy set to songs by powerhouse Swedish hit-maker Max Martin that has earned plaudits on Broadway this season. Perhaps the trick is to transform the material into a zany romp?

But “The Last Goodbye,” a more traditional jukebox reworking of “Romeo and Juliet,” wasn’t able to figure out the formula. And that show had the advantage of the moody music of Jeff Buckley, which at least seemed like something Shakespeare’s ill-starred young lovers might stream into their earphones when alone at night, obsessing over each other.

Although Romeo (Khamary Rose) and Juliet (Kay Sibal) of “Invincible” have much in common — both have cruelly lost their fathers, and both are contending with overcontrolling mothers — they hardly seem made for each other. The issue is stage chemistry, but then it’s not easy for them to tenderly relate with all the singing and dancing needlessly breaking out around them.

The character of Paris, who in Shakespeare is the man Juliet’s parents insist she marry, is given an expanded role that includes a conspiratorial backstory. This political cad has designs on Juliet’s family fortune, but there’s no need to worry. Brennin Hunt, sauntering across the stage with a dazed and confused expression, turns Paris into a self-preening cipher.

I was frankly stunned by the wooden quality of the ensemble. If the Razzies included theater, “Invincible” would be one of the year’s big winners. (Hunt would secure my vote, though Jon Patrick Walker, who plays the meddlesome Friar as a kind of middle-aged surfer dude, would be a strong runner-up.)

But fine-tuned characterizations aren’t the priority. These performers must have been selected for their singing prowess. And in that respect, they don’t disappoint. The vocal chops of the company had me imagining a casting call for “The Voice.”

I grew up on Benatar’s music, and though I don’t have any tracks in my music library, I couldn’t help lip-syncing along to her still-inescapable hits. The show, unfortunately, shoehorns in too many songs. And even the numbers that lend themselves to the thematic material (“Love Is a Battlefield,” “Shadows of the Night,” “Heartbreaker,” “We Belong”) fail to poetically resonate.

But that’s because the hooks and the grooves are designed for a different purpose. All the retooling in the world can’t hide this basic fact. Jukebox musicals can sometimes be giddy fun, but there are artistic limits that must be faced.

‘Invincible’

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18.
Tickets: $29-$125
Information: (310) 746-4000 or thewallis.org
Running time: Approx. 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission
COVID protocol: Masks are strongly recommended.



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