Thursday, May 3, 2018

1 (2018-2019): Review: UNEXPECTED JOY (seen May 2, 2017)

"Jumpstarting the New Season"

The 2017-2018 theatre season is now officially over, the awards nominations are in, and we herewith begin the new season of 2018-2019. During the just ended season, I reviewed 216 shows on this site, The Broadway Blog, and Theater Pizzazz. The countdown for the new season begins below with an original musical called Unexpected Joy.

There are, indeed, some unexpected joys in Unexpected Joy, the intimate new musical by Bill Russell (book, lyrics) and Janet Hood (music) at the York Theatre, Off Broadway’s distinguished seedbed of promising new musicals. Not enough, though, to predict as rosy a future for it as two other recent York creations have experienced: Cagney and Desperate Measures (reopening soon at New World Stages).
Luba Mason. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
If Unexpected Joy, brightly staged by Amy Anders Corcoran, were able to embody its narrative core and catchy songs within an imaginative framework unburdened by a superficial script, it might have a chance. But as it is now, it has a split personality: part concert, part dysfunctional family drama, and part anti-homophobic polemic. Seeing it in a New York venue—where it’s clearly preaching to the choir—makes its social agenda much less poignant than were it to be seen in some conservative bastion of the Deep South.
Luba Mason, Celeste Rose. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tony-nominated Bill Russell (the underappreciated Side Show) says in his program note that the show’s story about a straight woman falling for a lesbian takes its inspiration from someone he knew in real life. In the show, that person is Joy (the terrific Luba Mason), a blonde, middle-aged singing star and social activist living on Cape Cod and preparing a local concert memorializing her late, beloved husband, a singer-songwriter named Jump. Their show biz act was called Jump and Joy. Da da boom.
Luba Mason, Celeste Rose. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The perhaps too youthful-looking Joy fits her shapely figure into boots and skintight jeans; those jeans may not be bell-bottomed but her hippy-influenced blouses and fringed leather vests are distinctly redolent of the late 60s and 70s. She and much of her music convey a mix of Carole King, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Joni Mitchell, and similar pop stars of that era, beginning when she opens the show with a prologue number, the rocking “How Do We Go On?” which nicely captures that bygone period vibe.

The song is the opening for her concert, which bookends the show. When it’s finished, the action flashes back a bit to before the concert, when Joy’s at home being visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter, Tamara (Celeste Rose). The girl’s mother is Joy’s bastard daughter, Rachel (Courtney Balan), a name Joy keeps absentmindedly changing to Rainbow. Mason looks too young to be an 18-year-old's grandma but let's just leave it at that.
Courtney Balan. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Rachel, with her singing preacher husband, David, has a successful career as a Southern televangelist on “The Good News Hour.” Joy, for her part, reveals that she herself is the daughter of Jews but that their Jewishness “never took.”
Celeste Rose, Courtney Balan, Luba Mason. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tamara is an aspiring rock singer-songwriter, whose amusingly shocking lyrics in a raunchy song she sings for Joy reveal her to be far from the innocent angel her controlling mother believes her to be. She emulates her glamorous grandmother’s freewheeling lifestyle (she calls her Glamma) and would prefer to live with her than with her Bible-thumping mother. The latter says “Language!” whenever someone swears, and, like her husband, is unapologetically homophobic and a believer in conversion therapy.
Celeste Rose. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Rachel’s anti-gay convictions become central to the domestic drama at the libretto’s core, namely, Joy’s intention to marry the outspoken, black, proudly lesbian singer, Lou (Allyson Kaye Daniel), with whom she’s fallen in love. Joy, however, rejecting “labels,” insists she herself isn’t gay.
Celeste Rose, Luba Mason, Courtney Balan. 
Thus the soapy setup in which each daughter clashes with her mother and we wonder: how long can Rachel be kept from discovering her sister’s Bible-defying relationship, how will she react to it? Worse, what will be her response to the potentially family-shattering revelation that, the day after the concert, Joy will be marrying Lou? Will she participate in the concert? What will happen to Tamara? And will Rachel and Joy reunite? Does, in fact, the future hold the promise of unexpected joy?
Allyson Kaye Daniel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Of course, in shows like this, very little is unexpected, so a few strong laughs help carry the essentially sitcom plot and dialogue, stereotypical characters, and feel-good ending.
Luba Mason, Allyson Kaye Daniel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Many of the songs are actually very entertaining, if derivative, and cover the blues, 70s-style pop, conventional rock, and even Christian rock (“Better Times Comin!”). What’s missing is an integrated approach to how they fit into the libretto. A few reflect (but don't drive) the situations, like “Raising them Right,” Rachel’s commentary on the problems of child raising, while others are stand-alone and do little to further the plot. Such would be the concert and rehearsal routines, or the title song, performed by Lou and Joy.
Allyson Kaye Daniel, Courtney Balan, Luba Mason, Celeste Rose. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show closes with a rousing, handclapping, 70s-style anthem called “Common Ground,” one of Jump and Joy’s hits. As its title shows, it carries the play's unifying message that we're all in this together.
Celeste Rose, Courtney Balan, Allyson Kaye Daniel, Luba Mason. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Jim Morgan’s simple set, with sliding panels occasionally moved to reveal the four-member orchestra (led by pianist/conductor Beth Falcone) upstage, serves nicely for both the concert and living room scenes. The presence of a couple of floral-patterned armchairs at both the concert and Joy’s home is justified by a piece of forced exposition. Ken Wills’s lighting looks fine and, apart from Joy’s questionable retro look, Matthew Pachtman’s costumes suit the characters.
Courtney Balan, Celeste Rose, Luba Mason, Allyson Kaye Daniel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The vocally gifted, charismatic ensemble gives excellent performances in their paper-thin roles, from Luba Mason’s been-around-the-block pop star, to Celeste Rose’s convincingly girl-next-door teen (Rose is old enough to have a BFA), to Allyson Kaye Daniel’s sassily wise lover, to Courtney Balan’s uptight televangelist.

As long as you don’t expect another Cagney or Desperate Measures, you’ll likely find some unexpected joys at Unexpected Joy.


York Theatre
619 Lexington Ave., NYC