Thursday, April 03, 2008

How Are Things in Irish Drama?

"Juno" presented by Encores! at New York City Center, March 30, 2008

Based on the 1926 play "Juno and the Paycock" by Sean O'Casey, this "Juno" is the musical adaptation by Joseph Stein (book) and Marc Blitzstein from 1959. With its dark tale of Irish struggles during the 1921 Irish Rebellion, it's not quite the happy-go-lucky Irish tale the art to the left might indicate.

Much more in the tradition of Irish drama, it follows the tale of Juno Boyle (Victoria Clark) and her family. Her ne'er-do-well husband Captain Jack (Conrad John Schuck) falls victim to Irish stereotype as does his sidekick Joxer Daly (Dermot Crowley), allergic to work and overly fond of drink. Daughter Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) longs for a better life than the one Jerry Devine (Michael Arden) might provide. Son Johnny (Tyler Hanes) lost his arm during the rebellion and can't seem to get any focus on where his life may lead. His best friend Robbie Tancred (Kurt Froman) is killed at the outset of the story, the result of a betrayal.

With unemployment rampant and a recalcitrant husband, a distracted daughter and an injured son, Juno's luck appears to change when an English lawyer, Charlie Bentham (Clarke Thorell) arrives bearing news of a dead cousin of Capt. Jack's and a sizable inheritance. Mary is immediately smitten and Capt. Jack starts the words land in his ears. Meanwhile, rebellion forces are snooping around looking for the one who betrayed Robbie (duh, guess who!).

And you can guess what happens with the inheritance and the lawyer.

As the worn and haggard Juno, Ms. Clark sings as beautifully as ever. She shows a genuine bond with her children, but never really showed why she let Capt. Jack continue to hang around without contributing to the household. Her madrigal duet with Ms. Keenan-Bolger, Bird Upon the Tree, stopped the show (or as close as anything that evening might have). Ms. Keenan-Bolger's Mary showed me precisely why she was originally cast as Clara in "The Light in the Piazza" as well as why the role was later recast with Kelli O'Hara. Her soprano voice effectively portrayed the young woman who longs for more.

Mr. Schuck's Capt. Jack staggers, but never really lands on his character. As brother Johnny, Mr. Hanes makes a particularly powerful turn in the Act II ballet (talk about dancing with one arm tied behind your back).

Messrs. Stein and Blitzstein also give us a kind of Greek chorus with Mr. Madigan, Mrs. Coyne, Mrs. Brady and Miss Quinn - a quartet that reminded me of the crones from Boublil and Shonberg's Martin Guerre - providing a bit of humorous relief and various crossovers.

Irish director Garry Hynes, known for award-winning work with Irish drama captures the book scenes with the gravitas and sense of hopelessness one might expect. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend quite so successfully to the songs.

Warren Carlyle's choreography in the Act II ballet is the highlight of the performance. I'd have been happy to cut directly to the ballet from the madrigal and called it a night.

Mr. Blitzstein's remarkably modern score captures the darkness of the subject matter, flavored with Irish inflections. Given the way the songs are packed together, I can't help but wonder why he and Mr. Stein didn't go ahead and make the piece entirely sung-through.

The original only ran 16 performances in 1959. In a year that included "The Sound of Music," "Fiorello!," "Gypsy," "Once Upon a Mattress," "The Most Happy Fella," "Flower Drum Song" and "Redhead," there wasn't much room for a dark horse like "Juno." It's one I'm glad to have seen, but don't think I need to see again. Thanks to Encores! for providing this kind of programming.

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