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Stanton Welch Creates Memorable If Uneven Romeo and Juliet

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The Execution: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most well-known love story in the West, not because the play is his best work but because its themes of young passion and ill fortune are as universal as it is adaptable to just about any form of dramatic artistic expression. The tale of star-crossed lovers has been in the ballet repertory since 1940, when it first premiered in the Soviet Union alongside Sergei Prokofiev's now iconic score. Houstonians have cherished Ben Stevenson's take of the ballet since 1987, but now Houston Ballet's artistic director Stanton Welch has created an all-new version with only Prokofiev's music as the unifying thread.

The Execution: When read through the valence of today's postmodern hipster culture, the plot of Romeo and Juliet borders on the absurd. Essentially, two children become enraptured by one another (Romeo is 16, and Juliet has not yet reached 14), and unable to reconcile the tumultuous histories of their warring families, fate takes hold and leads them through a series of events that sees both young pretty things kill themselves in the name of true love -- and all in five days, no less.

When held up to Hamlet or King Lear, Romeo and Juliet is not quite as weighty thematically, but this is why Welch's ballet feels refreshingly true to spirit. Welch's interpretation is appropriately light, especially for the first act-and-a-half. He fills his stage with a rich array of visual pleasantries that bring the Verona of the Italian Renaissance to vivid life. Roberta Guidi de Bagno's majestic sets do much to accentuate the smart, multilayered choreography. The Market and the Hallway of the Castle Capulet in Act One create three-dimensional scenes that allow the mass of bodies to convey both the everyday jostle of street life and the mannered rituals of an invitation-only ball.

Guidi de Bagno also created the production's costumes, which are spectacular in their attention to detail. It seemed that every dancer had his/her own wardrobe; even stock characters were adorned with individual flourishes in dress. Her colors -- a spectrum of turquois, red, and yellow -- intelligently separate the characters into their respective houses, but cumulatively create a believable society of Verona.

Even the most streamlined of Shakespeare's works is populated by what appears to be dozens of characters, each with his/her own distinct personality, cadence in speech, and motivations. Welch doesn't shy away from even the most banal of secondary characters. He has a large company and uses this to full effect by bringing to life just about every member of the houses of Montague, Capulet and Escalus. He puts the men to work early on in Act One with gleeful and mischievous athletic work, but much of what makes his choreography interesting is his ability to make the most of even the most simple of steps. Case in point: The Ball scene is exquisite, but who knew a single-gesture port de bras and a pas de bourree could be so compelling?

Compelling is also an appropriate description of dancers' acting ability. Opening night saw the roles of Romeo and Juliet performed by principal dancers Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez. It's hard to think of a more elegant pairing. Their partnering is magical, in particular the Act One pas de deux. Walsh maneuvers the lifts as if Gonzalez is an extension of his own body, and in turn Gonzalez imbues every moment off the ground with a bit of the ethereal.

Both also handled the lead roles with a mature understanding of the characters' psyche, in particular the youthful exuberance of the adolescent lovebirds. Romeo and Juliet truly believe their love for one another can surmount all things, a concept that any performance artist would find difficult to convey in this jaded twenty-first century, but Walsh and Gonzalez understand this dual gravity and naiveté inside and out. It should also be pointed out that Walsh, along with the rest of the men, make for very believable swordsmen. The action sequences were polished and nicely choreographed, and were anything but mere metal clashing.

Welch's Romeo and Juliet is bright and springy for much of its first half. Everyone seems to be having a good time, including the audience, that it's easy to forget that soon people must die. When blood finally does spill, it's a jarring shift in tone. Jared Matthews' Mercutio and Christopher Coomer's Tybalt go for broke in their death scenes, so much so that the impact of the bloodshed is minimized. The audience doesn't so much see these deaths as the deaths of real people, but as the deaths of caricatures. Their deaths precede those of the hero and heroine, but they should be taken as more than plot devices. Mercutio and Tybalt are also victims of the Montague-Capulet blood war, and remind the audience of the senselessness of wanton violence, but this is lost in the over-dramatization, even though it's very entertaining.

The bedroom scenes move quickly between tragic and comic notes, which do not quite build to the finale. It's safe to say every person who enters the Wortham Center knows how this story ends, so it might have been more effective to keep a more somber tone in the final act.

The Verdict: But really, that's just personal interpretation of a well-known tale. Stanton Welch has created another treasure to add to the Houston Ballet story repertoire. In terms of sheer size and scope, Romeo and Juliet is a grand feat, and successfully manages to turn a thin play into what feels like an expansive historical drama.

Romeo and Juliet runs through March 8 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas Avenue. 7:30 p.m. March 6; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. February 28; 2 p.m. March 1 and 8. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $70-$195.

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