Being as big a Shakespeare buff as I am, I was intrigued by the news that Studio Gonzo (Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, Samurai 7, Last Exile, Trinity Blood, Witchblade) had made an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and that Funimation would be dubbing it. The resulting show was admittedly much more in-spirit to the play rather than a strict adaptation. Here, the setting is the floating city "Neo" Verona, and Juliet is the last daughter of House Capulet, the rightful rulers who were murdered by the power-mad Prince Montague. Oh, and there are flying horses, Juliet cross-dresses as a boy named Odin to hide her identity (a common plot device in the Bard's comedies), William Shakespeare himself is something of a character, and pretty much all the characters take their names from ANY Shakespeare play that Gonzo can think of.
Needless to say, strict adaptation faithfulness is not on this series' mind. But I have certainly dealt with this before. Consider Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa's famous version of Macbeth that transplants the story into feudal Japan, or The Lion King, which basically reenacts Hamlet with animated animals in Africa. As a result, I enjoyed Romeo X Juliet immensely. It is gorgeously realized, INCREDIBLY emotional (seriously, I was a weeping mess by the end), beautifully scored by Hitoshi Sakamoto (known for video game scores such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII), and the English dub arguably makes the show.
Not that the Japanese version is bad, mind you. It is certainly well-acted, but the sub dialogue is considerably more "standard" anime. There is also the persistent "Engrish" problem, where attempts by Japanese actors to speak many English or Italian names/words just ends up sounding goofy. Sometimes this is less of a problem for me (Gankutsuou's sub version is arguably superior to its dub, sadly), but here I couldn't stop giggling. Let us move to the direction and writing to see first what makes this series shine in English dub form.
DIRECTION AND WRITING
Actors R. Bruce Elliott and J. Michael Tatum (who are also in the show, as we will see) share directing duties on the series, and both do an excellent job of guiding the actors' performances. Pretty much everyone, even the more over-the-top characters/performances, sounds smooth and natural. Really, for most of these actors, I'd say it's some of their best work ever.
This is especially impressive because head writer Taliesin Jaffe and his crew (including Elliott, Patrick Seitz, Anne Chenoweth and Stephanie Sheh) do not make things easy for themselves. Instead of keeping the fairly standard dialogue from the sub, Jaffe and company have elected to make the scripts sound as formally English and Shakespearean as possible.
First, they take many lines from Shakespeare's various plays (including of course the source material for this), and put them in new contexts. For example, one character (I won't say who because of spoilers) admonishes another "Did you think I didn't know a hawk from a handsaw?" This is Hamlet's famous assertion to his friends that he is actually playing at being mad, but now it reads as a character asserting that they are not easily fooled.
It works splendidly, and much of the rest of the dialogue, even when not taken from Shakespeare, is appropriately florid and poetic. It's not completely constant; modern terms like "ain't" and "crap" occasionally sneak their way in, but that's hardly a deal-breaker. The actors seem to relish the challenge, so now let us move on to our cast.
A quick note on accents: Surprisingly, most of the actors do NOT attempt bog-standard Received Pronunciation British accents for this tale. They adopt an elevated, formal diction, but only a couple actors actually go for "British" vocally, and we will get to them in due time. I am actually OK with this, as the series is not tied down to Elizabethan culture and dress in the way that, say, Black Butler is (which is FILLED with various accents in the dub). It's a more generalized fantasy look, with some obvious and welcome Italian influence.
JULIET (Brina Palencia)-I adore Brina. She seems to be one of those actresses who can confidently play any role you throw at her. And this Juliet has many modes all of her own; she is a daring Errol Flynn-type adventurer and defender of justice when disguised as the Red Whirlwind, a low-voiced boy when disguised as "Odin", the young, uncertain lover, and the fierce warrior of revolution as the series progresses to its endgame. Brina nails every last one of those modes; I would argue there is not a single false note in her performance, especially in the heartrending final scenes.
ROMEO (Chris Burnett)-At first glance, Chris' work seems less impressive than his love interest. After all, this Romeo is a much less headstrong, more soft and gentle version than his Shakespearean counterpart. The shy, higher-pitched voice for the character reflects that. As the series progresses, however, Chris gets many more opportunities to show off his acting range. This is also linked to Romeo's character development; he starts as a rather naive boy, and while he never loses his essential goodness, he becomes wiser in the ways of the world nonetheless. He captures that development rather wonderfully, and he even gets to be pretty badass in certain areas. He's also wonderful in the swoon-worthy romantic scenes with Juliet.
LORD MONTAGUE (Sean Hennigan)-Our villain of the piece, Montague is a splendidly hateful antagonist, cruel and charismatic in equal measure. Sean, quite simply, is one of the absolute high points of the dub, and considering this dub is overflowing with them, that's no small feat. He has an older, rougher but not frail voice that indicates long years of experience and authority. In Sean's performance, you can see why people revere Montague as a ruler... as well as why they fear him so greatly. Already in a unstable mental state as the series begins, Montague grows steadily more insane over the course of the story, and hearing Sean play that gradual breakdown is beautiful from an acting standpoint. He even gets to indulge in some psychotic, maniacal laughter by series' end, and you know how much I love that. (Also, the moment where he vows to kill Romeo's "whore" right in front of the boy is a great use of shocking language)
CORDELIA (Colleen Clinkenbeard)-I'm going to be totally honest here: I love characters like this, plain-dealing, honest and brave women who love their companions fiercely. Much like Brina, Colleen is another actress who can play seemingly any role, and this might be one of my favorites from her. She is never less than completely true and natural in the role, whether it's comforting Juliet, sobbing over the cruelties of fate in allowing Juliet to fall in love with the son of Montague, standing up to cruel guards, or sweetly falling in love with Romeo's friend Benvolio later in the series. It's one of my personal favorite performances in the entire dub.
BENVOLIO (Sean Michael Teague)-Benvolio is perhaps the closest in characterization to his Shakespearean counterpart in the series. He is calm, reasonable, a friend to all, and even gets to fall in love with a woman who is as sweet and brave as he is. Sean has one of those interesting male voices that is soft and higher-pitched that can also be used to hint at a greater strength and force under the surface. See his performances in Yu Yu Hakusho and Jyu Oh Sei for good examples of this. This quality is well used for Sean's Benvolio, who starts as a nobleman but rather happily adjusts to civilian life, and serves as a crucial ally for the revolution. It's an excellent performance.
WILLIAM (J. Michael Tatum)-Tatum is one of my favorite Texas VAs working today. He has a ridiculously wide range, both in vocal types and in characters he can play effectively. He's also just a straight-up excellent actor, always bringing every ounce of passion and skill he can muster to his characters, and seems to carefully consider the point-of-view of each role he plays. Look at his Kyouya in Ouran High School Host Club, a performance that is simultaneously dryly hilarious, inhumanly polite, and yet so carefully modulated that it can be hard to get a read on Kyouya as a person. And then there is William, this series' obvious Shakspeare stand-in. Tatum puts on an intentionally goofy British accent for the role (for a more "realistic" one, see his portrayal of Sebastian in Black Butler), and camps it up gloriously 90% of the time, but there are other, quieter moments where "Willy" manages to identify characters' emotional problems with surprising, keen insight. Tatum makes those shifts completely believable, in addition to being a memorably hammy scene-stealer. He also gets the bulk of re-contextualized Shakespeare lines, and has a total blast with those too.
AMELIA (Larissa Wolcott)-Amelia's not a terribly deep character, but she is a great source of comedy in the show as she complains about being sidelined in William's plays, or fawns over Juliet in her "Odin" disguise. Larissa gets to have a lot of fun with this high-pitched, screechy character, especially in the hilarious scene when she finally discovers Odin's true gender.
ANTONIO (Maxey Whitehead)-One of Maxey's first major roles at Funimation, Antonio is yet another stellar example of her skill at playing young boys believably. Not much else to say, although she does get to be funny in a bratty way in various scenes. No complaints here.
CONRAD (R. Bruce Elliott)-To my ears, it sounds like Bruce is putting on something of a British accent here, and it perfectly compliments his old, rugged voice. Conrad is a pretty typical "gruff old guy with a heart of gold" character that Bruce has played before, but he plays them wonderfully, and so he gets a lot of great smaller moments here.
FRANCISCO (Eric Vale)-Again, this is a pretty typical Eric Vale "pretty boy" character: strong and cunning, but also elegant and sophisticated. Vale is rock-solid for the entire series' run, especially in scenes where he teases his fellows, or works out potential strategies out loud.
CURIO (Robert McCollum)-By contrast, Robert doesn't get to play guys like this (stalwart and brave, but also very stubborn) very often. Usually he plays thugs or villains, such as Sensui in Yu Yu Hakusho or Donflamingo in One Piece. As such, it's nice to get to hear him stretch his range, and he's quite good here as Juliet's other childhood guardian.
PORTIA (Dana Schultes)-Portia is an admittedly standard mother character, but Schultes' sweet, matronly voice fits the role to a T, and she manages to give some real depth to the moments when Portia's bitter regrets from the past rise up again.
TYBALT (Mike McFarland)-Tybalt is an interesting inversion of his Shakespearean counterpart. Originally a hot-headed Capulet cousin of Juliet who lived for fighting Montagues, Tybalt here is a hot-headed son of Montague who despises the man for using and abandoning his Capulet mother, who died after giving birth. He's a very haunted figure, but also one who has the capacity for good; he grows to encourage Romeo and Juliet's romance late in the series, for instance. Mike is terrific in the role, giving Tybalt a low, almost Batman-esque voice that can nevertheless be soft and gentle at the right moments. He gets a particularly great scene in the final episodes when Tybalt berates Romeo for seemingly abandoning Juliet at her greatest hour of need; Mike knocks it out of the stratosphere in his righteously outraged performance.
MERCUTIO (Christopher Bevins)-Another interesting Shakespearean inversion, Mercutio here is a sniveling toady who sucks up to the various nobles around him in hopes of gaining greater status than his father, a former soldier who has grown fat and drunk. Chris gives Mercutio a sneering, sarcastic tone that steals scenes early on, and later shifts that to growing fear and madness as Mercutio tries to handle Montague's increasingly outrageous, petty and vindictive demands. The last we see of him, after a certain spoilery event, has him wandering into the shadows, with Chris doing some great insane giggling and cackling as an exit cue. I daresay it is his best dub performance yet.
HERMIONE (Carrie Savage)-Carrie gets to have some fun here, playing around with a pretty standard ingenue role that she gets a lot. She's very good in the early episodes where Hermione is lovesick over Romeo, then she gets to be jealous when she learns that Romeo loves another (getting to say "painted maples" in the process, which makes me cackle with glee), insisting that Juliet has somehow bewitched or seduced Romeo for her own gains. She gets two particularly great confrontation scenes with Juliet, one in a prison where she is shaken and confused by Juliet's worry over Romeo, and one later on when she nearly stabs Juliet, but the two end up reconciling when Hermione realizes that the former's love for Romeo is real. Carrie nails all of these moments wonderfully, as well as when Hermione acts atypically haughty to cover up her real feelings.
OPHELIA (Jamie Marchi)-A mysterious figure who grows in importance as the series goes on, Ophelia is a very creepy, enigmatic personality at first, and then she basically goes nuts by the end when Romeo and Juliet defy her plans for Neo Verona. Marchi's casting is quite a surprise, since she tends to play bubbly, sexy characters with tons of energy. But she's quite excellent, especially since Ophelia is one of the only characters who almost always speaks in verse in the English dub.
There are a lot of other great, smaller roles and characters, such as Kent Williams' Lancelot, who serves a crucial early role as a regular Neo Verona citizen who makes a heartbreaking sacrifice; Jerry Russell's Tubal, who gets a great final, heroic scene after spending most of the series as an antagonist; Leah Clark's feisty Regan; Chris Ayres' slimy Camillo; Chris Cason's corrupt priest; and so on. Amongst the extras and supporting cast, I daresay there are not any bad performances in the whole lot.
In conclusion, Romeo X Juliet is a great show, and easily one of my favorite English dubs ever. It's certainly one of Funimation's crowning achievements in that area. I would highly recommend the series and dub to anyone who needs a little more love story in their lives.