Hot ‘Romeo & Juliet’ prompts visit from the fire department 

Prokofiev’s "Romeo & Juliet," performed at The Crucible in Oakland, was supposed to be the first ever fire ballet. Instead, on its opening night the much anticipated show completely redefined the concept of "technical difficulties" and nearly turned into a water ballet when a sprinkler system broke during the first act, pouring liters of water all over the Capulet ball dancers.

Given the glowing torches, aerial dancers and house beats mixed with Prokofiev’s score that appeared in the beginning of the ballet, the sprinkler incident did not seem that surprising. At first.

But when the audience (especially the soaking wet people in the first row) realized this was not part of the plan, the real fun began. Just think — mops and huge fans drying the floor, the Oakland Fire Department greeted by the audience yelling "OFD," and The Crucible’s stage manager propelling himself toward the ceiling to change the sprinklers — and you get the picture.

The whole "intermission" took more than an hour, but the spirits of most in the audience did not seem dampened. Perhaps it was their desire to witness the first fire ballet or maybe it was just the wine bar. At any rate, the second two acts of "Romeo & Juliet" combined exciting fire effects with such passionate dancing that it was easy to forget about the watery mishap.

In combining professional local dancers, fire performers and aerial dancers, the ballet followed The Crucible’s tradition of "fire operas." Choreographed by Corinne Blum, who previously danced with San Francisco Ballet, and led by music director Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz, music editor for 1996 film version "Romeo & Juliet," this production was set to be a success.

Yet a question remained: Would fire effects detract from the story and the dancing? The answer is no.

Fire was present throughout —from Juliet’s sleeping potion to the lovers’ tomb — and brought a nice novel touch. But more importantly, it amplified the mood of several important scenes.

For example, when Juliet, played by Maurya Kerr, lit the spiral balcony ablaze on her way down to meet Romeo (Easton Smith), the fire added a romantic glow to the famous scene. When Romeo and Tybalt (Brendan Barthel) crossed their fire-lit swords, it added drama. At these moments the fire, replacing the normal light effects, seemed almost natural. After all, fire is the most appropriate lighting for a Shakespearean tragedy.

Besides the fire, the dancing made the ballet work. Kerr, previously a principal dancer with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, was spectacular as Juliet — naive, airy and vulnerable. Easton and Brian Fisher, who played Paris, were great partners for Juliet. Another star was Mercutio, played by a brilliant break dancer of San Francisco’s Flavor Group, Shawn Hallman, who added modern spunk.

Although some scenes seemed too much like a silent film, The Crucible’s "Romeo & Juliet" was a true night of fire and passion that inspired both lovers and pyromaniacs. And maybe a few sprinkler designers.

Romeo & Juliet: A Fire Ballet ***½

Where: The Crucible, 1260 7th St., Oakland

When: 8:30 p.m. Jan. 12-13, 17-19; 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20 gala

Tickets: $45-$55

Contact: (510) 444-0919 or www.thecrucible.org

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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