IN FAIR VERONA

ABC bol­sters the ranks with Shon­daLand’s first cos­tume drama

The Hamilton Spectator - - THE SPECTV - BY JAC­QUE­LINE SPENDLOVE

Shon­daLand takes us back to fair Verona with “Still StarCrossed,” a se­quel to Wil­liam Shake­speare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” pre­mier­ing Mon­day.

Shon­daLand is go­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion this sum­mer. The pro­duc­tion com­pany founded by screen­writer/pro­ducer Shonda Rhimes has made a com­fort­able home for it­self in ABC’s Thurs­day night prime-time block, with such hit drama se­ries as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scan­dal” and “How to Get Away with Mur­der.”

In a departure from the con­tem­po­rary, work­place-based shows we usu­ally get from Rhimes, the lat­est of­fer­ing from Shon­daLand is a pe­riod piece — and you can look for it Mon­day nights in­stead of in the usual TGIT block. “Still Star-Crossed” takes us back to fair Verona in a se­ries that serves as a se­quel to Wil­liam Shake­speare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s based on the novel of the same name by Melinda Taub and makes its long-awaited de­but Mon­day, May 29, on ABC and CTV.

As just about any­one who made it through high school English knows, “Romeo and Juliet” is one of Shake­speare’s best-known tragedies and ends with the deaths of the play’s two tit­u­lar lovers. The fi­nal scene of the play leads us to be­lieve that the feud­ing Mon­tague and Ca­pulet fam­i­lies are rec­on­ciled by their chil­dren’s deaths, but as we see in “Still StarCrossed,” things in Verona are still more than a lit­tle rocky.

The se­ries fol­lows char­ac­ters we were made fa­mil­iar with, to vary­ing de­grees, in “Romeo and Juliet.” Bri­tish ac­tress Lashana Lynch (“Fast Girls,” 2011) stars as Ros­aline Ca­pulet, Juliet’s cousin. In the se­ries, she’s taken in by her aunt and un­cle (Juliet’s still-griev­ing par­ents) fol­low­ing the deaths of her par­ents, and is forced to work as a ser­vant.

In Shake­speare’s play, Ros­aline is a mi­nor char­ac­ter, but an im­por­tant one. Her role is a non-speak­ing one (and in most pro­duc­tions, she’s never even seen), but those fa­mil­iar with the play will re­mem­ber that she’s the ob­ject of Romeo’s af­fec­tions in Act I, Scene I, be­fore he sets his eyes on her cousin, Juliet — though Ros­aline “hath for­sworn to love,” a.k.a. the feel­ing isn’t mu­tual. It’s be­cause of Ros­aline that he sneaks into the Ca­pulet party, and thus meets Juliet. You know the rest of the story.

Star­ring op­po­site Lynch is Wade Briggs (“Please Like Me”) as Ben­vo­lio Mon­tague, Romeo’s cousin, who tries to keep the two fam­i­lies from rip­ping each other to pieces for much of the play. In “Still Star-Crossed,” his de­sire for peace doesn’t ex­tend to his own mar­riage prospects; he’s or­dered to marry Ros­aline, who has no say in the mat­ter, and nei­ther of them is thrilled with the ar­range­ment. Prince Es­calus (Ster­ling Sulie­man, “In Time,” 2011), how­ever, is con­vinced that the match will bring peace to Verona at long last, and is heed­less of the fact that Ben­vo­lio is firmly against mix­ing Mon­tague and Ca­pulet blood, and Ros­aline de­spises her be­trothed.

For fans of Rhimes’ shows, the de­but of “Still Star-Crossed” has been long awaited. The an­nounce­ment first came well over a year ago, in Jan­uary 2016, that ABC had or­dered the pi­lot for the 2016-17 sea­son. The plan was to give it a mid-sea­son pre­miere, but the scope of the pro­duc­tion (which is filmed in Europe), and Rhimes’ packed sched­ule, sim­ply didn’t al­low for it.

This isn’t your av­er­age Shon­daLand pro­duc­tion, filmed on a Los An­ge­les sound­stage, af­ter all. Showrun­ners wanted to give it the time and at­ten­tion that a well-or­ches­trated cos­tume drama de­mands.

“It has taken us a lit­tle longer than we thought it would’ve taken us,” ABC en­ter­tain­ment pres­i­dent Chan­ning Dungey told Dead­line at the Tele­vi­sion Crit­ics As­so­ci­a­tion win­ter press tour. “It has all the great hall­marks of a Shon­daLand project, but it also is very epic in terms of scope and scale, and we did not want to rush it into a place where we felt like it wasn’t ready.”

Pe­riod dra­mas have al­ways been a draw, but the genre is hav­ing a mo­ment right now in par­tic­u­lar. The dearly de­parted “Down­ton Abbey” was a megahit for PBS, and Net­flix’s “The Crown” has been rak­ing in the ac­co­lades. There’s “Vic­to­ria,” “Poldark,” “Board­walk Em­pire,” “Poirot” — the list goes on and on, and the pop­u­lar­ity of the for­mat shows no sign of wan­ing. It’s no great sur­prise that Rhimes would want a piece of that pie.

Wade Briggs, Lashana Lynch and Ster­ling Sulie­man star in “Still Star-Crossed”

Lashana Lynch in a scene from “Still Star-Crossed”

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