With a new movie rendition of “Romeo & Juliet,” a bunch of students from Utah Valley University have achieved something that would challenge veteran filmmakers: They have breathed life into one of the most durable, and most familiar, of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Think of all who have gone before them, whether it’s Franco Zeffirelli’s swoon-inducing 1968 classic with Olivia Hussey as Juliet, or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 disco-dripped rendition with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles. It’s been musicalized (“West Side Story”), animated (“Gnomeo & Juliet”), horror-drenched (“Tromeo & Juliet”) and done every which way.
This adaptation — with a student cast and crew, directed by Salt Lake City filmmaker Joel Petrie — uses a modern setting, filming on Salt Lake City streets, to capture the heightened emotional state of Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” with raw passion and immediacy.
A troubadour narrator (Trenton McKean, who co-wrote the score with Jordan Petrie) sets the stage, where feuding Montagues and Capulets flash signs (“Do you bite your thumb at me?”) and engage in alley brawls. One Montague, Romeo (Dallin Major), is a love-struck puppy, still pining over his lost girlfriend Rosalind. But when his buddies Benvolio (Topher Rasmussen) and Mercutia (Maddy Forsyth, in a gender-flipped role) take him to a masquerade rave, he’s instantly smitten with a beauty, Juliet (Devin Neff) — who, he’s saddened to discover later, is the daughter of Lord Capulet (Christopher Clark), his clan’s sworn enemy.
At that point, the movie rewinds, showing things from Juliet’s side. She is shown as the abused daughter of the Capulets (the mom is played by Kaitlyn Dahl) whose only comfort is her aunt and nurse (Laurie Harrop-Purser, providing the necessary comic relief to this romantic tragedy). Juliet’s balcony is a trailer-park porch, and her father’s temper makes her desire to escape her lowly surroundings all the more urgent. Maybe Friar Lawrence (Brian Kocherans) can devise a plan to keep these kids together, before a Montague or a Capulet gets killed.
Using such locations as Salt Lake City’s Main Street and Liberty Park, director Joel Petrie runs his talented young cast through Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter at lightning speed, never losing the ferocity of the young lovers’ romance or their families’ feud. There are a few technical hiccups here and there, but Petrie gets some solid footage from his student crew.
Like most renditions of “Romeo & Juliet,” the production rises or falls with the performances, and the student cast here is solid. Major and Neff have palpable chemistry as the naive lovebirds, and Forsyth is an energetic scene-stealer as Romeo’s talkative compatriot. “These violent delights have violent ends,” a character observes in the play, and this production delivers both.
* * *
Romeo & Juliet
A cast and crew made up mostly of Utah Valley University students produce an exuberant and thoroughly modern rendition of the Shakespeare classic.
Where • Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy), Megaplex 20 at The District (South Jordan), Megaplex Thanksgiving Point (Lehi).
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 13.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence, drug content and mild sexuality.
Running time • 101 minutes.