BWW Review: JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING is Frothy Mix of Missed Opportunities
Make no mistake about it, there is a funny, intelligent, socially-conscious, slightly sardonic show inside of the new musical JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING. Unfortunately, the show's writers, Scott Logsdon (book and lyrics) and Steve Marzullo (music) weren't able to find it in time for the world premiere production that ended its run at Orlando's Abbey earlier this week.
Director Kenny Howard assembled a talented cast, but despite their best efforts, the show read like a road map of missed opportunities. It suffered from an identity crisis similar to that of its title character, swerving back-and-forth between comic absurdity and silly realism with neither ever approaching its full potential. As the show stands now, JOYCE JACKSON doesn't effectively settle on a tone, which makes appropriately appreciating the show's humor difficult, especially since some of its jokes are problematic in their current context.
Billed as a parody of a real '50s-era dating guide, the show opens with a self-aware brand of humor, punctuated by fourth-wall breaking asides from Joyce to the audience. However, it quickly becomes something akin to an "after-school special" with odd, occasionally funny characters.
The show then turns again as Joyce goes from earnest to obnoxious in one scene with no explanation, along the way, losing the only conceit (her meta asides) that made the show's central character empathetic, resulting in about half of the show playing like an out-of-touch cautionary tale.
That said, the cast, led by Alexa Neilen as Joyce, was uniformly fun, even if they were a bit at sea with the awkward material. Neilen has an effective charm that fits perfectly for the beautiful good girl we see as the show opens, but is somewhat wasted as the character becomes progressively more unsympathetic. However, Neilen possesses a crystal clear, strong belt (perhaps too strong for the tiny Abbey) and she should be seen on more Central Florida Stages.
In the show, Joyce Jackson is a typical high school senior in the late 1950s struggling between being the good girl that she has been taught to be and giving into temptation with her jock boyfriend Mix Lawrence (played by Bobby Hogan).
As Mix puts the moves on her at the drive-in, Joyce has the eureka-moment to write a book to help her fellow teenage girls navigate the often tricky travails of dating. Using her friends Betty, Nancy, and Frieda (played by Jenna Coleman, Eva Gluck, and Amelia Bryant) and frienemy Louise (Marissa Ann Volpe) as inspiration and test subjects, Joyce goes from doe-eyed debutante to abusive taskmaster, literally in the time it takes to change a single scene.
This roller coaster character arc adds to the comedic instability that the show was already suffering through. Another concerning factor about the show in its current form is that it trades on vaguely misogynistic stereotypes of women being conniving, man-dependent back-stabbers. While the two male characters Mix and his nerdy best friend Ted (played by the always great Ricky Cona) are portrayed as mostly up-right and honorable, every single female character has storylines in which they debase themselves for the affection of a boy; whether that is three girls fighting over two boys, or two girls changing things about who they are specifically in order to earn a boy's attention. While that is ultimately the crux of GREASE, from which JOYCE JACKSON borrows liberally, it feels much different in the far-more progressive present.
Ultimately, despite all of her selfish scheming, the show suddenly ends without Joyce ever earning redemption. Instead the cast sings a song entitled "Practice What You Preach," which becomes more problematic when you consider the base and borderline offensive lessons she preaches in her book.
Fortunately, Howard keeps the pace of the show bouncing along quickly, with a number of fun and inventive staging choices, but the flow of the show is irreparably hindered by the fact that there are dozens of scene changes that routinely bring the show to a grinding halt at the very moment it finds its momentum.
At the performance that I attended late in the run, there were a considerable amount of sound problems, with some of the ensemble never being mic-ed, which wreaked havoc on the tight, 1950's style harmonies.
JOYCE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO DATING was one of the winners of the Florida Theatrical Association's 2016 New Musical Discovery Series, and while it's had a fairly starry concert production in New York earlier this year, the musical still needs considerable focusing, and a dose of modern sensibility, before it's ready for a discerning New York audience.