The Bard's a Perfect Fit with Houston Ballet in Romeo and Juliet

What makes Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare's most popular work is its accessibility to the masses; everyone at one point has been the Romeo or Juliet of their own lives. The innocence of first love, the transitional purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, and the tragedy of unrealized dreams are the themes of life itself. The Bard knew this, and crafted a play filled with words that immortalized the passion of his star-crossed lovers.

But words can be tricky, and mean different things to different people. Ben Stevenson's ballet strips away the ambiguity of the original work and leaves the bare essentials. Movement is a language that is understood by everyone, and one would be hard-pressed to find someone who isn't convinced of the passion in Stevenson's choreography. The pas de deux, or classical duet, in Act I and Act III, are so lush, so full-bodied, they appear to be almost Modern.

Opening night's performance saw the birth of a new star in Joseph Walsh's portrayal of Romeo. The recently promoted principal seems to have been born for the seminal role; in his dance, he remembers what so many actors of the screen and stage seem to forget about the title character, that for all the swordplay and acts of chivalry, Romeo is still just a boy. Walsh moves with sincerity and boyish charm, which complement the childish impetuosity of his partner Sara Webb, a veteran of the Juliet role. She's all sprightly pique arabesques and flighty grand jetés, more imp than girl. The audience never forgets that they are witnessing children in bloom.

It's hard to stop praising Romeo and Juliet. Ben Stevenson staged his production just so. However, there's much more to see and enjoy than the two pretty young things in center stage. David Walker's set and costume designs are a visual feast of Italian Renaissance decadence. And what is a story ballet without a ballroom scene? The Act I ball is a highpoint that sees the entire company performing an austere, yet majestic, dance that makes the most of Prokofiev's sweeping score. The Nutcracker may serve as an introduction to ballet, but Romeo and Juliet is the type of production that inspires young people to dance.

Romeo and Juliet runs through June 17 at Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.

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