Love on a Grand Scale
Houston Ballet delivers an exuberant Romeo & Juliet.
Houston audiences first saw Stanton Welch’s Romeo & Juliet in 2015. Returning to the Houston stage for a two-week run for the first time since its premiere, the production delivers the same emotional and visual punch today as it did seven years ago.
Based on the Shakespearean tale and performed to Prokofiev’s timeless score, Romeo & Juliet is set in the 15th century. The titular characters, young members of warring houses, fall in love at first sight. Unfortunately, Juliet already has a suitor, Paris. While her family pushes her to marry Paris, Juliet secretly marries Romeo and then concocts a plan to fake her death in order to escape with him. Tragically, the plan goes awry and Romeo, believing her dead, takes his own life. Juliet awakes to see her dead lover and, heartbroken, kills herself.
The lead roles are perfectly cast. Principal dancers Connor Walsh and Karina González appeared as Romeo and Juliet during the show’s first weekend in February. Not only are the two exceptional performers, they have a palpable chemistry. It’s unmistakably apparent, from the first few moments of the ballet to the curtain call.
Chun Wai Chan, a former Houston Ballet principal dancer who recently left the company in order to join the New York City Ballet, will return to Houston to perform as Romeo opposite Melody Mennite’s Juliet for the show’s second weekend (March 3–5).
Walsh and González are unequaled, and Chan and Mennite are peerless. Both couples are exquisite in their differing but equally sublime performances.
During the opening-night performance, it’s González’s Juliet who was most transformed during the story’s action. In the first act, she is an innocent, happy young girl. Once she sees Romeo, she instantly falls in love. Her innocence gives way to new and exciting sensations in his arms. In the second act, she visibly grows in her sensuality and desire. And in the third act, she is a fully satiated woman fighting to hold on to her lover.
Openly queer soloist Harper Watters is Count Paris, Juliet’s worthy but nonetheless rejected intended. Were Romeo removed from the situation, Paris would be a perfect match for the young Juliet.
Watters and González perform two pas de deux that are strong and majestic. They hint at the splendid possibilities of the pairing. Hopefully, we’ll see more of Watters and González together in the future.
The full company, members of Houston Ballet II (the pre-professional company), and the Houston Ballet Academy combine to fill the stage. The ballroom and market scenes are impressive not only in their size but in their precision.
The large cast includes Prince Charmings of every stripe. Along with Connor Walsh’s heroic Romeo, Harper Watters is superbly noble in his performance as Paris. Houston native Jack Wolff is equal parts witty and droll as the ever-tipsy Benvolio.
Several other dancers deserve special mention. Naazir Muhammad as Prince Escalus, and Luzemberg Santana as Mercutio, are both magnificently regal in their roles. Each time Muhammad, a soloist, or Santana, a demi soloist, step on stage, they demand our attention.
And it’s wonderful to see Steven Woodgate, one of the company’s four ballet masters, reprise his role as the priest who marries Romeo and Juliet in secret, later masterminding Juliet’s tragic plot to fake her death. (Audiences last saw Woodgate in “Good Vibrations,” a take on the Beach Boys anthem.)
Prokofiev’s impressive score, Welch’s intricate and powerful choreography, and the dancers’ first-rate performances are matched in excellence by costume and scenic designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno.
She provided towering set pieces which sail across the stage—huge tapestry-like curtains that echo Italian Renaissance paintings along with danceable, flowing gowns and exquisite military uniforms. The Montague, Capulet, and Escalus houses each have dozens of members. Each dancer had to be obviously related to the house by color, but also distinguished as an individual. No easy task, but Guidi di Bagno gave each dancer enough detail to differentiate them.
What: Houston Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet
When: Through March 5, 2023
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue
Info: houstonballet.org, 713-227-2787