BWW Review: Florida Theatrical Association Presents Scott Logsdon's and Steve Marzullo's JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING at the Abbey Theatre
My aunt, Bess Hoskins, a popular Home Economics teacher in Griffin, Georgia for several decades, passed away at age 89 in 1983. Going through her antique belongings, we came across a slew of etiquette books from the 1950's. My favorite title was Etiquette for Young Moderns by Gay Head (a name that was certainly eye-popping to more modern sensibilities). But the best written of the lot was a dating primer called Joyce Jackson Goes on a Date by Joyce Jackson.
Leafing through the book back then, my college friends and I would have giggly-fun reading Joyce's chapter titles ("Which personality shall I be tonight?") and her take on Mix Lawrence, the high school dreamboat who was crowned Snowball King at the Winter Festival, and Louise Benedict, the bad girl. The whole point of the book became Joyce's screed on stifling sexual activity until marriage. It was even illustrated, with drawings of young Joyce crowning herself on a pedestal marked "Me?" while being watched by a Freudian, quizzical large worm with a question mark over its head. The whole thing was funny, strange and oddly touching, and I thought we were the only ones who had discovered the secret joys of Joyce Jackson.
Imagine my joyful surprise when I heard a musical had been written by the multi-talented Scott Logsdon (book and lyrics) and Steve Marzullo (music), based on the writings of Joyce Jackson: JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING.
This is a quirky, fun ode to the 1950's dating scene that I often found hit or miss but that offers a wildly talented cast of young people and tons of potential. It never reaches the manic marijuana highs of Reefer Madness nor the end-of-the-world mayhem of Atomic Café. But it does capture the off-kilter sweetness and quality of the old etiquette books (sometimes quoted nearly verbatim). I laughed sometimes, but I found myself smiling throughout.
Alexa Neilen is a sensational find as the titular character, one of the better students at Helen Keller High School. I love how the play is about Joyce writing this manual of dating, even though the advice she gives her friends usually turns out wrong. Neilen, just out of high school, gives a star turn with glowing stage presence and some powerful pipes. She has a sort of Sharon Tate meets Cameron Diaz quality. Her Joyce is both innocent and yearning, and yet she is so stuck in her ways (and so obsessed over the creation of her book) that she never gets to have any real fun. She's like a teacher educating kids on a subject she knows nothing about. And Neilen captures this perfectly. She's a bit too pretty for Joyce Jackson, who is supposed to be a regular gal that the reader can identify with, but she makes it work.
As the love of her life, Bobby Hogan makes for an extremely likable Mix Lawrence. He's not quite the jock that Mix was in the book (he plays basketball, but I always pictured him as a sort of Tim Tebow with a flat-top), but there's a depth in him not found in the primer. His last song, "I Liked Her But She Wasn't You," provides a brief glimpse at the inner life of this BMOC, and Hogan nails it. I just wish we could see what made Mix change and not just hear him sing about it afterwards.
Amelia Bryant makes for a memorable Frieda Mac Dougal, a girl in search of a personality (like Peter Brady in the "pork chops and applesauce" episode of "The Brady Bunch"). Jenna Coleman is a hoot as the cheerleader, Betty Miller, who sexually experiments with Ted Cook, played to the nerdy hilt by Ricky Cona. Cona is always a joy to watch onstage, upping the energy level to the max whenever he enters, and his Ted is a combination of the buck-tooth Julius Kelp and Urkel. His kissy duet with Coleman, "The Girl to Girl Way," was brilliant.
Eva Gluck does well as Nancy Dale, the teen who dares wear make-up (gasp!), and Marissa Ann Volpe rounds out the cast as the buxom Louise Benedict, who tries to steal Mix from Joyce. Her "Outside Looking In," beautifully sung, offers a glimpse of a depth not found in the books.
JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING is a parody with heart. It captures the 1950's beautifully, including winking references to actress Nancy Davis (later Mrs. Ronald Reagan) and hunk of the times, Tab Hunter. There are funny moments, cute lines, but there are also jokes (and long Lynchian pauses) that fall flat, are way too obvious or go nowhere. There were also mic and lighting issues on the night I saw it. Some of the songs are just gorgeous (and gorgeously sung), but others have a sameness about them. (A song list in the program would help.) You get a feeling that the musical is not quite complete, and is probably a rewrite or two away from being great (and it certainly has the potential for greatness).
I guess my main qualm is that it needs to have an overall arch to the show, perhaps in the character of Joyce. Following Joyce as she writes (and lives) her infamous etiquette book is a brilliant notion, but we need even more than that. The show has heart, and the creators have an obvious love for the material (you laugh but you also feel for some of these characters), but we need something to accelerate the plot, to keep us on the edge of our seats. Right now, the scenes come across as vignettes, separate episodes that don't quite add up. They are entertaining but nothing more.
Director Kenny Howard does a good job quiding his cast. Kyla Swanberg's costumes are period appropriate, and Bonnie Sprung's minimal sets work fine.
The show ends its run at the Abbey Theatre on August 14th, so make sure to see it while you can. Logsdon and Marzullo have a budding winner here. There is a youth market dying for new shows like this (and I'm sorry, but Zombie Prom is not one of them). You can see the greatness that is bubbling beneath JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING. With some tweaking and rewrites, it has the makings of a cult classic.