Sept. 24 2013 09:30 PM

Old Globe Theater weaves cult favorite into Shakespeare's classic tragedy

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Jay Armstrong Johnson and Talisa Friedman are Romeo and Juliet (left); Jeff Buckley
Left photo by Matthew Murphy, right courtesy of The Old Globe

Romeo and Juliet and Jeff. Not what you expected, was it? But Michael Kimmel, creator of a production that brings together Shakespeare's most famous star-crossed lovers and the heart-rending music of the late Jeff Buckley, is convinced the three were made for each other.

The Last Goodbye, opening Oct. 6 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, not only has Buckley and The Bard going for it, but also Tony-nominated director (for Peter and the Starcatcher) Alex Timbers, choreographer Sonya Tayeh and orchestrations and musical arrangements by Kris Kukul. And, of course, the highly accomplished Kimmel, who has previously adapted works by Chekhov and Henry James.

More than a dozen Jeff Buckley songs—some in full, others in part—are interwoven into the otherwise faithfully told Romeo and Juliet. Buckley, who drowned at the age of 31 in 1997, recorded only one album: 1994's Grace. A couple of other albums were cobbled together and released posthumously, along with several live recordings.

"It's a relatively small canon, but a canon with some depth," says Kimmel, who conceived and adapted The Last Goodbye. "We pulled songs from [Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk], we pulled songs from Grace, as well as two songs that aren't Jeff's, per se, but ones, like Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah,' that he put his indelible stamp on."

It was Buckley's song "Forget Her," recorded during the Grace sessions but released later on a re-mastered version of the album, that first inspired The Last Goodbye. "There's something in the yearning, the raw nature of how Jeff performed it that feels very much in the middle of a breakup," Kimmel says. "I went back to Romeo and Juliet and the line [spoken by Benvolio to Romeo] 'Be ruled by me, forget to think of her.'" The fit was a natural.

"If you just take the play, we all know that first-love feeling of loss and how it feels like youíre never going to get beyond it," he says. "I think Jeff gives voice to that feeling."

The more Kimmel explored the potential relationship between Buckley's music and the play, the more he was convinced of their synergy. "What was scary was how well his songs worked within the play," he recalls. "Not necessarily always in a story-driven moment, but in the writing. These two writers [Shakespeare and Buckley] echo each other in their use of metaphor. While their vernaculars are different, there are a lot of similarities: life and death, darkness and light.

"I just remember having this distinct moment of having chills about how many of these songs really fit into the theme of the play so well."

The Last Goodbye was first staged three years ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, with "a more modern feel," Kimmel notes. The Globe production, which runs through Nov. 3, will get a more classic look, while emphasizing the thematic connection through time. "It really grabs on to this idea of these two things hundreds of years apart coming together," he says. "The goal is that you're not really sure where Shakespeare ends and Buckley begins."

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