The sense of impending doom that pervades the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet hangs heavy over the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s world premiere production of “The Last Goodbye“. Those familiar with the life, music and ultimate passing of Jeff Buckley may be tempted to approach this project with a sense of trepidation – as I did initially. Jeff’s body of work was emotional, poetic and powerful. His songs speak to the power and confusion of love and hold a special place in the musical hearts of many – defining specific moments of their lives and relationships. “The Last Goodbye” then, stands as a bold statement. The risk is that a combination of these two iconic stories could end as an interesting but failed gimmick – trust me when I say that it does not. It is a fully realized and powerful vision that brings new emotional and musical life to the classic story. Ultimately, the pairing of the doomed couples fate with Jeff’s lyrics and music make for a heady mix of musical tragedy and catharsis that left me emotionally spent.

The setting is a vaguely modern visual world, echoes of New York city street scenes of walls plastered with posters and a long balcony that spans the stage. The plays action takes place on the streets and balconies of this modern/ancient town. The Capulet’s are imagined as moneyed aristocrats with a sense of entitlement while the Montague’s are more of the downtown art-scene crowd.

Damon Daunno’s portrayal of Romeo walks the fine line between romantic and goofy in an entirely endearing way. It doesn’t hurt that he can bear a passing resemblance to Buckley and delivers Jeff’s falsetto passages with effortless grace. I knew this production was going to work when Damon and Nick Blaemire (as Benvolio) combined vocals on my favorite Buckley tune “Forget Her” as Romeo contemplates ending his relationship with Rosaline.

While this town is busy sleeping,
All the noise has died away.
I walk the streets to stop my weeping,
She’ll never change her ways.

Don’t fool yourself, she was heartache from the moment that you met her. (Benvolio)
And my heart is frozen still as I try to find the will to forget her, somehow. (Romeo)

Forget Her

The character of Rosaline has been amplified a bit. As played by Celina Carvajal she appears wearing knee high leather boots and a very short minidress. Let’s just say it’s apparent why Romeo was attracted to her. Celina joins in the song with Damon and Nick adding a few lines from “The Last Goodbye” and a seductive dance that might make Romeo think twice about his decision. (Note, I saw Celina deliver a show stopping version of “Have Mercy On A Criminal” at the WTF Cabaret a few weeks back – girl has some serious vocal chops).

Kelli Barret’s Juliet has the decidedly modern feel of a strong-willed girl who desperately wants love – and is unafraid to embrace it when it arrives. More on Kelli later . . .

Other standout performances include Jo Lampert’s turn as a powerful and riveting androgynous Mercutio. Her rendition of “Eternal Life” to close out the first act is a bravado combination of music, physical and vocal delivery that reinforces one of the plays recurring musical motifs

Eternal life is now on my trail
Got my red glitter coffin man, just need one last nail
While all these ugly gentlemen play out their foolish games
There’s a flaming red horizon that screams our names

Lampert’s performance and personality are so strong that if Mercutio had not met such an untimely death we might have ended up seeing a show called “Mercutio & Juliet”

Ashley Robinson as Tybalt delivers a powerful, rock and roll anger version of “Haven’t You Heard” as he fumes about Romeo’s appearance at the Capulet’s party.

Paranoia will write the world prayer
Make sure that you fit in the right holes
But when you take his offer, you’re done for
Done for, done for, oooh…

I also enjoyed Jesse Lenat’s interpretation of the Friar as a good-hearted mystical street preacher who may have ingested a few too many illegal substances back in the day. Jesse and the cast create a tribal rythm of love and sex to Romeo & Juliet’s marriage day with “New Years’ Prayer

The strong presence of choreographer Sonya Tayeh comes to the forefront during this scene of orgiastic pleasure and marraige consumation. The characters, whose dance movements are often confined to constrained and angular gestures that reflect their inner tension and turmoil, are freed and encouraged to . . .

Feel no shame for what you are
Feel no shame for what you are
Feel it as a waterfall
Fall in light

Given that many Buckley fans will be interested in song choice and plot points I would be remiss if I did not mention the integration of other songs into some of the key plot elements. Damon sings “Everybody Here Wants You” to Juliet after the famous balcony scene as her parents demand she come inside for the night.

Twenty-nine pearls in your kiss
A singing smile
Coffee smell and lilac skin
Your flame in me

I’m only here for this moment

I know everybody here wants you
I know everybody here thinks he needs you
I’ll be waiting right here just to show you
How our love will blow it all away

Everybody Here Wants You

His delivery and emotion are perfectly matched to the scene.

Kelli sings a moving version of “Lover You Should Have Come Over” from the balcony of her house while looking down on Tybalt’s funeral even though her mind is focused on Romeo.

Looking out the door i see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners
Parading in a wake of sad relations as their shoes fill up with water
And maybe i’m too young to keep good love from going wrong
But tonight you’re on my mind so you never know

Lover You Should Have Come Over

and sings “What Will You Say” while contemplating suicide rather than living without her love. She perfectly captures the anger towards her parents at their plan to marry her off to Paris while not knowing that she is already married to Romeo. Kelli bares her emotions and much of her body as she strips away clothes and anger to reveal her pain inside.

It’s been such a long time
And I was just a child then
What will you say
When you see my face?
Time feels like it’s flown away
The days just pass and fade away
What will you say
When they take my place?

It’s funny now
I just don’t feel like a man
What will you say
When you see my face?
My face…

Mother dear, the world’s gone cold
No one cares about love anymore
What will you say
When you see my face?

Father do you hear me?
Do you know me?
Do you even care?
What will you say
When they take my place?

Random other things that moved me
– “Grace” – Romeo sings after hearing of Juliet’s death
– “Corpus Christi Carol” – Sung by Paris and cast after Juliet drinks the poison
– “Dream Brother” – Capulet’s party – especially “Fate is going to find your love in a glass of champagne”

Finally, you may be wondering if Jeff’s most often heard song, his emotional and fragile reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” appears in the play. It does and it’s presented as a heartbreaking coda to the final act and voiced by Nick Blaemire, who has perhaps the purest voice in the cast, as well as the rest of the company.

Shakespeare’s words say

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head

and Buckley via Cohen echoes

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah


I didn’t think this song still had the power to move me to tears. I was wrong.

Jeff Buckley’s lyrics and music and Shakespeare’s text merge beautifully and fluidly in this production. Fans of Shakespeare will appreciate this new take on the classic tale and fans of Buckley will be moved as they see Jeff’s songs inform and comment on the inner emotions of these well-loved characters. More than once I found myself saying “perfect” to the song and lyrical choices.

Kudos to Michael Kimmel and Kris Kukul who created this remarkable show with the support of the Willliamstown Theatre Festival and the hard work of Lauren Fitzgerald, Stephen Sanders, Jeff’s mother Mary Guibert and countless others. I have been fortunate enough to see first hand the passion poured into this show and can only hope that it continues on to reach a larger audience wherever it may be.

Photos by Sam Hough and T. Charles Erickson

Other Buckley songs appearing in the show:
You And I
All Flowers In Time
Woke Up In A Strange Place
Dream Brother
I Know We Could Be So Happy
Morning Theft
Nightmare By The Sea
Opened Once