Review - Juno: Encores! Showcases The Beautiful Score Of A Troubled Musical
With three different directors placing their marks on the material during its pre-Broadway tryouts and two actors who were not quite up to the vocal demands of the dramatic score playing the leads (Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas), Marc Blitzstein (music and lyrics) and Joseph Stein's (book) Juno, based on Sean O'Casey's Juno And The Paycock, limped into the Winter Garden in March of 1959 following high expectations (West Side Story had been ousted from the theatre to make room for it) and quickly closed up shop two weeks later.
But a failed musical isn't necessarily a bad one and while Juno is by no means an underappreciated classic, it's still an admirably ambitious piece that contains enough moments of true musical theatre beauty to warrant a concert production under more favorable circumstances. The Encores! adaptation by David Ives restores some of the material which seemed to have been cut because of the stars' vocal limitations, but respectfully makes no attempts to improve upon the shows flaws; most stemming from awkward clashes between the warring factions of musical comedy and folk opera. The work of director Garry Hynes, fully accomplished in Irish drama but making her musical debut, may be a bit static at times, but her commitment to presenting harsh stage pictures of the violence of the era gives the evening a raw authenticity. It's a beautifully sung and solidly acted look at a later work by one of musical theatre's most richly dramatic composers and an early creation of one of its most accomplished in the difficult field of bookwriting.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in adapting Juno And The Paycock is that, like much of O'Casey, the play is not especially plot-driven, a vital element in the kinetic art of musical theatre. Set in the working class tenements of Dublin in 1921, the musical opens with a stirring choral anthem of survival, "We're Alive," during which the perpetual violence in the streets during The Troubles spills onto the musical stage in a manner in which even post-West Side Story audiences were unaccustomed. With the Irish Civil War as a constant background presence, attention turns to the home of the Boyle family, where mother Juno (Victoria Clark) is both bread baker and bread winner while her irresponsible husband, "Captain" Jack (Conrad John Schuck), spends most of his days at the pub with his buddy, Joxer (Dermot Crowley). Daughter Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) has been turning down the romantic advances of her shy friend Jerry (Michael Arden) but soon finds herself courted by lawyer Charlie (Clarke Thorell) who comes with news of an inheritance for the Boyles. Meanwhile, young Johnny Boyle (Tyler Hanes), who lost his arm during the fighting, is suspected by the IRA for having betrayed a dead comrade.
Though playing the title character, and the one with the most responsibility, Clark has little to do plotwise other than act as the strong, sturdy maternal figure, which she does with aplomb. And though she sings with a hearty richness throughout, it's not until her final "Lament" that her impressive dramatic chops are fully on display. Keenan-Bolger has a touching sincerity in her ballad, "I Wish It So," where she longs for love to enter her life and when she and Clark entertain house guests with the pretty "Bird Upon The Tree," it's a lovely vocal highlight.
Choreographer Warren Carlyle's highlight is a dramatic ballet led by the one-armed Johnny; a nightmarish fantasy danced exquisitely by Hanes with one arm tucked in his shirt, leading a male ensemble of similarly one-armed Johnnys. Shuck makes for a boisterous and rousing Jack and Arden is sweetly charming in his one ballad, where Jerry begs Mary For "One Kind Word."
The original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, Hershy Kay and Blitzstein sound lush and detailed with Eric Stern conducting the thirty-piece orchestra. Even in a flawed musical like Juno, hearing a rarely performed score by one of the greats played with a respect for the authentic sound of Broadway is an enriching experience.