Second Production of 2008 Encores! Season. March 27-30, 2008. New York City Center, West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
Good News: Juno is the Great Irish Musical we've all been waiting for!
Bad News: …but the wait isn't over…
Ever since Riverdance, Celtic enthusiasts have been waiting for the Great Irish Musical. After the massive disappointment of The Pirate Queen a year ago the wait has worn long.
The Encores! City Center production of Juno, a revival of the musical based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, was awe-inspiring, heart-breaking, funny, tuneful, exciting and unforgettable. But productions in the Encores! Series have just five performances over one weekend. This review is a historical record, a critical reflection on the musical, a plea to producers everywhere, and a terrible tease to the reader. I'm sorry about that, but what can I do? Please, producers, sponsors, rich people surfing the net, cough up some money and transfer this brilliant and beautiful production to Broadway. It would have an audience, I swear. Because those who appreciate the O'Casey masterpiece, with its mixture of yearning, poetry and music-hall comedy, and love Irish music and dance, would love this too.
That both the late composer/lyricist Marc Blitzstein (Threepenny Opera) and bookwriter Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba) are Jewish might contribute to the show's sense of authenticity—the musical and artistic collaboration between the Irish and the Jews in America goes back to the early days of tin pan alley. Mick Moloney's album If It Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews, named for a song by William Jerome and Jean Schwarz, comes out this autumn. According to Mick, Jerome actually changed his name from Flannery so he could sound more Jewish. The score for Juno is positively brilliant, mixing dance tunes, ballad styles, sentimental tin pan alley and rousing marches—and as delivered by this cast, completely riveting. The Encores! Production carefully reconstructed a score that had been shifted and altered during the out-of-town process of the ill-fated original Broadway production, that ran for only 16 performances in 1959.
Director Garry Hynes, Artistic Director of Galway's Druid Theatre company and the first woman to win a Tony for direction of a play on Broadway (1998's Beauty Queen of Leenane) brings her knowledge of Irish theatre and sensitivity to ensemble to the production. Juno is the first musical Hynes has directed, and what a revelation. She creates exciting stage pictures and elicits emotional, affecting performances from her cast—without ever losing a musical's pace and timing. Joseph Stein (nearly 96 years young) said at a cast talkback after the Saturday matinee that the original production was painful, for a number of reasons—roles were miscast; three directors worked on it, none of whom were musical theatre directors. "The show that you saw this afternoon was very much what Marc and I had in mind in the first place," he said. O'Casey's drama was set during the Irish Civil War in 1922, but the authors of the musical set the show back one year, with O'Casey's permission, and focused on the end of the War of Independence instead. The musical beautifully captures O'Casey's lyric language and reveals his themes through dance and reprise. The musicality actually brings out the power of the play.
The story centers on the Boyle family, a poor Dublin family held together by a strong woman, Juno (Victoria Clark), who must deal with a shiftless, pub-crawling husband, a son who lost his arm in the Easter rising, and a daughter out of work due to a worker's strike. To get things moving, O'Casey introduces the reading of a will that changes the family's fortunes—brought by a handsome stranger. Irish theatrical dramaturgy often follows a musical pattern, with theme and motif, rather than a more traditional dramatic structure with a central conflict building to a crisis. One of the things that makes O'Casey's play great is that it mixes this modern, subtle structure with the theatricality and melodrama in the tradition of Dion Boucicault and George Bernard Shaw (who uses the reading of a will in The Devil's Disciple).
Nowhere is that theatricality more apparent than in the portrayal of the title character, the feckless "paycock," "Captain" Boyle (Conrad John Schuck). On the page, he's a boor and a braggart, followed around by his irritating sidekick "Joxer" Daly (Dermot Crowley), who's always angling for a free drink from Boyle and flattering him as a "darling man." In performance, the pair are Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Yogie and Boo Boo. Every time they're around you have to smile. You don't approve, but you sure appreciate.
That humor and light touch is particularly welcome in a world full of violence and fear. The murder of Robbie Tancred, which happens offstage in O'Casey's drama, occurs before our eyes in the show's prologue. The company sing "We're Alive:" "We're alive, as the old woman said." The peoples' determination, combined with Hynes' vivid visual tableau of intimidation and sorrow, is striking and effective. When we move to the home of the Boyle family, we know the depressing Dublin they inhabit. Daughter Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) rejects former suitor Jerry Devine (Clarke Thorell), because she wants a man "whose eyes move in more than one direction, and that down." She reads books and wants something more—she sings about it in a beautiful standard, "I Wish it So." The song isn't even remotely Irish-sounding, but it's such a stunner that it's been recorded by chanteuse Dawn Upshaw, and is known by enthusiasts who know nothing of O'Casey. Keenan-Bolger's soprano is sweet and clear. Victoria Clark as Juno holds the stage with enormous charisma. Her "Song of the Ma" includes these perceptive lines of introduction: "a ma is a creature with burden small. The burden grows bigger as kids grow tall - while the ma grows smaller an' smaller, until there's hardly anything left at all." It's a brilliant introduction—and as Stein revealed on Saturday, the lyrics actually come from O'Casey himself, in a letter. The song is funny, but tells us a lot about Juno and her family, too.
A "Greek chorus" of four gossiping women provide humor and let us in on some of the more subtle plot points. They are the first to talk to the man in the straw hat, whom they assume is a bill collector, and direct away from the Boyle residence. Soon we meet Boyle himself, at Foley's Bar, where an a capella foursome sing "We Can Be Proud"—to be from Dublin, that is. "Daarlin' Man" is a funny song for Joxer—you have to smile at his obsequy, and the rousing dance that ensues when Boyle is so puffed up with pride he buys a round for everyone is really fun. In the park, Jerry pleads with Mary to give him "One Kind Word"—a gorgeous tune later reprised. He's got a sentimental streak, but even as we feel sorry for him you suspect Mary's right when she tells him "I'm not that deep in your heart—and if you don't know it, I do."
Juno is frustrated by Boyle's reluctance to work—he has a bad leg that aches tremendously whenever a job is threatening. Their duet "Old Sayin's" morphs in the middle to another tune entirely as Juno answers every platitude of Boyle's with a sharp retort. To his "that's not a sayin'" she responds "I swear it's goin' to be." Joxer jollies Boyle out of a dark mood after Juno huffs off—and we see he's more cunning than he appears. "What Is the Stars?," a song that encourages Boyle to wax poetic about his time on the sea—the Antarctic is a "darlin' ocean" to Boxer—is pure music hall, supported by a kind of soft shoe. Soon Charlie Bentham (Clarke Thorell) enters—an English schoolteacher who bears a will from Boyle's first cousin. The will leaves Captain Boyle a small ortune. The good news changes everything. The reprise of "Old Sayin's" now emphasizes hope and tenderness, and demonstrates how powerfully economic hardship has eroded the bonds of love. As Hynes pointed out in the talkback, Dublin in the 20s was terrifically poor, with an infant mortality rate greater than that in India. Often in the play, a "coziness has crept into the dramatization," which does a disservice to O'Casey. She's right, and the musical pulls no punches. The songs illustrate O'Casey's strong socialist point of view, and the belief that poverty simply shouldn't exist in the world.
Juno admits she's glad he doesn't have to seek work now—and he has to smile at the former twinges in his legs. Is Boyle lazy, or is manual labor just not for everyone? Even as you know the good news is too good to be true, when he sings "There's another sayin': You're all the world to me, me darlin' Juno" you hope it will come out right anyway. Hope against hope: it's the essence of drama. It's what makes us keep watching, and what keeps us from looking away.
The four gossips sing "Poor Thing," comparing their misfortunes. A woman whose man had died, or had never found a man, had little to do but complain about it. Sure it's funny, but it's got a punch, too. We see Charlie courting Mary—also offstage in Juno and the Paycock. Act One concludes with a rousing, happy number "On a Day Like This," which has all the hope, joy and optimism lacking in the opening "We're Alive." All the characters weave seamlessly into the dance—the gossips, the barflys, even the menacing IRA men appear. It's a brilliant ending to the act and a terrific blend of Celtic flair and Broadway showstopping.
Act II portrays the Boyle family's living on the promise of income, Mary living on the promise of Bentham's love, and brother Johnny (Tyler Hanes) trying to avoid the soldiers who blame him for informing on Robbie Tancred. You know it's not going to end well but again you keep believing that it could. A long sequence involving several songs takes place at the Boyle home as the celebrate their new wealth. Juno and Mary sing "Bird Upon the Tree," to entertain Bentham—a song that sounds almost believable as an old folk madrigal. It describes a bird caught in its own nest and how "'Twas the storm itself that did free/The bird upon the tree." With the new money—or the promise of it—Boyle has bought a gramophone, which he plays for the party. This is cleverly done as the songs are performed by members of the ensemble—not characters at the party-- standing at old-fashioned microphones. "It's Not Irish" is a saccharine "Mother Machree"- type song which proclaims "It's not Irish to deny your poor old mother." (See note above about the Jewish-Irish musical collaborations—"It's Not Irish" is pure "My Yiddishe Mama" in a major key). "The Liffey Waltz" gives the company another opportunity to dance, interrupted by a scratch on the record as all the dancers pause and repeat their gestures.
The addition of music to O'Casey's drama makes the interruption of the party by the realization that Mrs. Tancred is burying her son that day even more heart-rending. Mrs. Tancred's anguished outburst, "Oh, Almighty God, take away our hearts o' stone, an' give us hearts o' flesh. Take away this murderin' hate - an' give us thine own eternal love" (a paraphrase of Ezekiel 11.19) is followed, chillingly, by a sung "Hymn" from an IRA man. The IRA man sings about love for man, but we know his love kills. Johnny has an amazing, dramatic ballet—a duet with the ghost of Robbie Tancred, in which the two are literally locked in a deathgrip—where he relives and forecasts his fears. Warren Carlyle's choreography truly dazzles. Hynes said the dance also symbolized Irealnd punged ino a brutal civil war, "the marks of which are on the country today, for 100 years."
The characters lives fall apart in Act II—Boyle and Joxer quarrel in "Farewell, Me Butty" (comedically); Mary, pregnant, has been abandoned by Charlie ("For Love"), who wrote the will so badly others can claim the money—and the Boyles will never see it. The reprise of "One Kind Word" reveals that Jerry's love ends where conception begins. Mary sadly and more wisely reprises "I Wish It so." As his fortune disappears so do Boyle's fragile, finer feelings—and he emerges again and finally as a self-absorbed, weak pretender. When Juno receives the news that Johnny is dead, she recalls Mrs. Tancred's lines—and turns them into the song "Lament." In this song is a reprise of "Ma." It's musical virtuosity, and Clark absolutely tears it to shreds. When she tells Mary the child will be better off without a father—it will have two mothers—it's not just funny; we see how the women have been paying for the war all along.The Finale brings us back to the realization that "we're alive"—even as the IRA men point their guns at the audience.
Joseph Stein told the audience, "We've never had a production as extraordinary as the one we've had today." It's hard to imagine a better one. Not to like it is just not to like O'Casey, and if you don't like O'Casey, you probably haven't read this far. A musical so fine deserves a wider audience. And a long run. And a cast album. Please, pretty please, random rich people? Cough up, Celtic Tiger! Bring Juno to Broadway!
Author: Review by Gwen Orel