Monday, March 31, 2008

Not a Pregnant Teenager

Theater review - Encores!
Music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein
Book by Joseph Stein, based on the play Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey
Directed by Garry Hynes
Conducted by Rob Berman
Starring Victoria Clark, Conrad John Schuck

New York City Center
Performances March 27–30, 2008

The cast of Juno
(photo: Joan Marcus)
City Center’s Encores! series made for shows like Juno, which only lasted for 16 performances on Broadway in 1959 and hasn’t been heard much since then. It’s musicals like this that really fit the series mission of returning forgotten shows to our stages for another look and listen.

The show has music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein, whose stage works also includes Regina and The Cradle Will Rock. (How about bringing those back?) Blitzstein and book writer Joseph Stein’s adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s 1924 play Juno and the Paycock never had a chance to become an audience-pleasing hit; it's a dark-humored tragicomedy about the denizens of a Dublin neighborhood, all touched by the continuing troubles between the IRA and the British. Needless to say, a musical that begins with the shooting of an Irishman by British troops had trouble finding an audience.

The authors obviously had great affection for Casey’s characters. The plot revolves around the Boyle family: mother Juno (played with empathetic toughness here by the always amazing Victoria Clark); her husband, the drunken, lazy Captain John Boyle (a blustery and funny Conrad John Schuck); their son Johnny (Tyler Hanes, a terrific stage presence and dancer), who lost an arm while fighting; and daughter Mary (the vulnerable and touching Celia Keenan-Bolger), who wards off a local suitor but unluckily falls for Charlie Bentham, a visitor bringing news that the Captain’s uncle has died and left a considerable sum in his will.

Concentrating on the interactions of these sharply drawn characters and their neighbors, Blitzstein’s songs are the emotional focus of the musical. Not surprisingly, the big ballads given to Juno (e.g., the closing “Lament”) and her daughter Mary (“I Wish It So”) are the high points of a show that, neverthelss, often feels like a mere outline for O’Casey’s infinitely richer play.

The Encores! presentation does its authors proud, bringing together the aforementioned stellar actors, all of whom invest themselves so deeply in their roles that even their singing is colored by the right amount of brogue; the crisp Encores! orchestra is led by Eric Stern and Warren Carlyle did the clever choreography -- all under the direction of Garry Hynes, whose effective shaping of the material builds to a powerful final image in a reprise of the opening number, “We’re Alive.”

If Juno does not live beyond its long Encores! weekend, at least we got the chance to hear this flawed but worthy show.

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