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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Of course, darkness didn't prevent West Side Story, which replaced Juno at the Winter Garden in 1959, from becoming a hit, and we've become more accustomed to musicals with dark stories but as Juno's librettist Joseph Stein, who was on hand for the popular Encores! Saturday afternoon aftertalk, pointed out, the original production suffered from director problems and mostly negative reviews. (Though Stein didn't say so, Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas a more notable for their acting than singing, weren't ideal leads). However, it's probably because Juno's dark-bright duality is not as perfectly integrated as the sublime Encores production of Gypsy, that even though blessed with a superb Juno and May Boyle (Victoria Clark and Celia Keenan-Bolger) and a director for whom Irish classics are mother's milk (Gerry Hynes) that the current five performance Juno is unlikely to resurface any time soon. And that's exactly as it should be!
Despite the fact that Gypsy (review) is the latest of a number of Encores productions to transfer to Broadway, the mission of this popular and invaluable series is not as a revival tryout but to give people a chance to become acquainted, or re-acquainted, with a neglected musical. Perfection and Broadway transfer worthiness is not a prerequisite. Fortunately, City Center is a big house so some five thousand people will have had a chance to see this very satisfying staging with Mark Blitzstein's fine and often soul-stirring music ideally sung and Warren Carlyle's spellbinding "Johnny Boyle's Ballet " (a reconceived version of Agnes DeMille's nightmarish dream ballet) before it's final performance.
With Mark Blitzstein, best known for Regina and The Cradle Will Rock, as the composer and never having seen the original Juno, I expected this to be more operatic. But while Blitstein's operatic sensibility is evident in the opening and closing numbers, the composer seems to have become enamored of the O'Casey's Irishness and accommodated his signature style to include jigs, waltzes and show tune style ballads. If this makes for something of a split personality musical, it also makes it a most accessible and enjoyable one.
As edited by the master of this concert format, David Ives, the musicalized story sticks closely to O'Casey's version. It's the saga of a Dublin family during the 1920s civil strife, with Juno ( Clark) keeping the family together with little help from her layabout "paycock" of a husband (Conrad John Schuck), who prefers pub crawling with his pal Joxer (Dermot Crowley) to anything resembling work. The effect of the civil war has already hit home, by costing rebel son Johnny (Tyler Hanes) his arm. Things look up when a British lawyer Charlie Bentham (Clarke Thorell) brings news of a legacy, but the self-indulgent O'Boyle starts spending the inheritance immediately even though it's pretty obvious that it's not going to materialize. Charlie also brings bookish daughter Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger) closer to her dreams (or so she thinks) than local suitor Jerry Devine (Michal Arden).
The rich score is studded with gorgeously sung solos and duets: Arden's passionate ballad to Kennan Bolger, "One Kind Word" . . . Keenan-Bolger's yearning "I Wish It So " . . .Clark's gut-wrenching "Lament ". . .and Clark and Keenan-Bolger's show stopping "Bird Upon a Tree." Abetted by the stark background and lighting, and color matching costumes, Ms. Hynes has brought the tragic story to emotionally powerful life. Eric Stern's orchestra is, as is usual for these productions, on stage and terrific.
In a perfect world this close to perfect production of an imperfect musical, would be taped for the Lincoln Center Theatrical Library.** At any rate, bravo to the folks at Encores! for another mission accomplished.
Mark you calendar for May 8 to 11th. That's when Encores! brings back a more through and through light-hearted 1920s musical, No, No, Nanette. Though not a flop like Juno it's probably too dated to be re-mounted except to fulfill the Encores! mission. The cast so far includes Mara Davi, Sandy Duncan, Beth Leavel, Rosie O'Donnell and Sharon Wiley.
** I stand corrected, per this note:
Dear Ms. Sommer, I just read your wonderful review of JUNO, and wanted to reassure you that we do indeed live in a perfect world: Juno, like all ENCORES! shows, was in fact taped for the Lincoln Center Library at its Friday performance. I appreciate the support and the understanding of what we're doing at ENCORES!, and we hope to be doing it for the rest of time. Best regards, Jack Viertel