REVIEW Romeo and Juliet the ballet, not the play is not exactly known for its wit. Prokofiev's heavy-handed use of thematic material at times makes Wagner sound frivolous. But leave it to Mark Morris to turn ballet's most beloved 20th-century tragedy into a fairy tale whose comedic overtones are difficult to miss. Does the piece which was given its West Coast premiere by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall Sept. 25 work? Up to a point it does, because Morris set clearly defined parameters and shaped his take accordingly. At the end, however, the choreographer falls flat on his face.
Morris' Romeo and Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare is the result of musicologist Simon Morrison's discovery of the composer's original manuscript in Russia. It doesn't include a balcony scene, nor do the lovers die. The most welcome revelation is that the music was not designed to hit you over the head. The orchestration is thinner, shading its colors instead of splashing them on.
When tackling the largely unchanged libretto, Morris decided to keep the story at arm's length. His characters are not quite flesh-and-blood people. The dancers inhabit their roles against the backdrop of a story we already know well. And they do it superbly. In many ways, Morris is playing a game with us. It's witty, fun, and distanced.
The minute the work opens and we see the good citizens with their wooden swords, you know that this is make-believe. There is no conflict between these families: everybody, including the parents, is immature. Hormones rage. Stuff happens. The whole society is kept together by Escalus (a fabulously effective Joe Bowie) who prowls the town like a playground supervisor.
Morris' handling of the crowd scenes works. He treats them like accidental encounters, akin to neighborhood gossip that swells then recedes. It's one way of dealing with Prokofiev's propensity for repetition. The ballroom scene's formality resembles early Martha Graham with Romeo posturing like a pouting teenager. In a nod to the famous pillow dance, Morris includes a parlor game involving a cushion.
He explores a similar thematic development in the market scenes. A hop and turn motive spools the citizens on stage as if they were coming off a conveyor belt. As for the love story, Morris makes it into a puppy love that unexpectedly grows into something the kids can no longer handle. Noah Vinson's Romeo is splendid, tender and ready to jump out of his skin from sheer happiness. Maile Okamura's Juliet evolves nicely into take-charge maturity.
In the end, Morris' Romeo falls apart. The divertissements in the bedroom look like caricatures, as do Romeo's and the Friar's ex machina appearances. Morris' imagination fails him badly as he transports the lovers into a literally star-crossed universe. The choreographer prides himself on using every note of a composer's music, but perhaps that's not always such a hot idea.