Thursday, May 03, 2018

Unexpected Joy

No doubt: the York Theatre Company is on a roll. Its last show, Desperate Measures, received a bouquet of nominations for best musical (Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, etc.) and will soon open at New World Stages. And now the York is presenting the lovely Unexpected Joy.

The fabulous Courtney Balan, Celeste Rose,
Luba Mason, and Allyson Kaye Daniel
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Joy is a singer best known as half of the successful duo Jump and Joy. Jump died a year ago, and Joy is organizing a concert in his memory. She hopes to get her daughter, Rachel, and granddaughter, Tamara, to participate. Joy is a committed hippie (when someone is asked if Joy still smokes weed, she answers, "Only when she's awake") for whom protest is as important as breathing. Rachel has gone completely in the other direction; she is married to a TV preacher and lives a rule-bound life. Tamara is more like her grandmother, chaffing against restrictions and boundaries. The three women try to use this occasion to make peace. As you might imagine, it doesn't exactly go smoothly.

Book writer-lyricist Bill Russell (Sideshow) and composer Janet Hood (Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens) utilize folk-rock, pop, and blues in both diegetic songs (where the character knows she is singing, as during a concert) and nondiegetic songs (where the character, unaware she is singing, musically shares her thoughts and emotions with the audience). The combination works quite well, particularly since the diegetic songs are often autobiographical, and all the songs are good to wonderful.

Unexpected Joy pulses with energy, love, humor, and compassion. It reminds me a bit of The Band's Visit in that it lacks chorus, dances, and big numbers yet is completely full and satisfying.

Russell and Hood are extremely well-served by director Amy Anders Corcoran, who directs with clarity and rhythm, and the amazing cast of Courtney Balan, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Luba Mason, and Celeste Rose. All four women have beautiful voices, and their different personalities and styles mesh perfectly, even when the songs are about not getting along.

Mason's Joy clearly has spent her life as a star, mostly getting her own way, and Mason perfectly balances entitlement and wanting to please her loved ones. She kicks ass in her big numbers and is gently emotional in her small ones. Balan has perhaps the toughest role as Rachel, the preacher's wife, since the audience is likely to find her the least sympathetic character. But Balan shows that Rachel's need for structure is rooted in a childhood with few boundaries and periodic neglect. (Joy's answer to any challenges about her life or child-rearing tends to starts with "We were musicians!" as though that frees her of any responsibility.) Rose, as the young and rebellious Tamara, nicely depicts her growing pains and holds her own when singing with the grown-ups. And Daniel is perfect as Lou, Joy's "good friend," from her voice to her attitude to her stance.

While the band for Unexpected Joy is small, its sound is big. Beth Falcone,* on the piano, is the conductor/musical director; Brian Hamm plays bass, Jack Morer plays guitar, and Jeff Potter is on the drums. They truly rock. And the design elements nicely support and enhance the show; the costumes in particular help define the people who wear them. The creative team includes James Morgan (set), Matthew Pachtman (costumes), Ken Wills (lights), Julian Evans (sound), Deb Gaouette (props), and AnnMarie Milazzo (vocal arrangements).

Unexpected Joy deserves a nice long run; I hope it joins Desperate Measures at New World Stages. The show provides the always welcome reminder that discovering a wonderful new musical is one of the great joys of theatre.

Wendy Caster
(press tickets; fifth row)

*Note: this name was misspelled; apologies to Ms. Falcone.

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