REVIEW: “Unexpected Joy”
“Unexpected Joy”, a new musical that recently opened at Off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company, does, in fact, contain several unexpected joys—among them a groovy, folk rock score, an intriguing original story mining contemporary themes, and a quartet of strong female vocal performances. Regrettably, they are balanced by some unfortunate faults: a script and direction lacking dynamism, stereotypical characters and sitcom-deep dialogue, and a pat ending.
Set in present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts, leading lady Joy (Luba Mason) is the remaining half of fictional musical duo “Jump and Joy”, a successful act from the 1960s. Strong minded, free spirited, and flighty (imagine if Cher and Barbra Streisand had a baby who sang like Carole King), Joy has spent a lifetime rejecting convention, including her refusal to marry her long-time partner, Jump.
A year after his death, Joy’s estranged daughter, Rainbow (who prefers Rachel) (Courtney Balan), and beloved granddaughter, Tamara (Celeste Rose, who would make a good Zoe Murphy replacement in “Dear Evan Hansen”), arrive from Oklahoma to participate in a memorial concert. Then the clashes begin. Though harboring an unknown Jewish heritage, Rachel—who resents her boundary-free, hippy childhood—married a crusading Christian televangelist, singing on his television program, and adopting his right-wing views (“homosexuality is an abomination!”) and warped sense of victimhood (the “liberal media” and “entertainment conglomerates” “run by Jews” have a bias against Christians! Sure.).
Tamara is rebelling against the strictures of her own upbringing, secretly writing and performing songs at local coffee house open mic nights. For her part, Joy has one big, “unexpected” surprise to share with everyone: she’s engaged ... to a woman—fellow rocker, Lou (Allyson Kaye Daniel), who happens to be African American—and plans to get married the day after the memorial concert (convenient scheduling).
Inspired by disparate real stories collected by book writer and lyricist Bill Russell (“Side Show”, “Elegies”), and featuring music by Janet Hood (“Elegies”), it is refreshing to see an older female character onstage who is not a doting grandmother, but rather a confident, sexually fluid, rebellious, aging rocker known, instead, as “glamma”. While there is much talk of Rachel’s unseen husband, no men appear onstage, and the focus of the story is the relationships among the women. Again, refreshing—and admirable.
This family of singers, not surprisingly, sings, as the action switches back and forth between the memorial concert, and scenes at Joy’s house in the days leading up to it—a concept that works well; as a result, most songs occur in the reality of their situations, as either performances or rehearsals, so it is odd when Rachel suddenly starts singing in Joy’s living room. More unrealistic, still, is how everyone suddenly and effortlessly knows all their lyrics, arrangements, and harmonies, like an episode of “Glee”.
The largest fault, however, lies in the lack of dynamism to the tone of the script and direction of Amy Anders Corcoran. While the songs are good, the scenes in between them are often cringe-worthy. The whole story exists in one mode, which makes it hard to engage with the characters and their drama. Each character roughly fits a trope, their fault-lines predictable, and their resolution not too “unexpected”—much like in any sitcom.
Joy is frustratingly conciliatory with Rachel and shockingly flip about her relationship with Lou. The musical ends with a rousing call to bridge differences and find “common ground”—with all four women joining in song. Without, however, a concomitant charge to also stand your ground when it matters, the closing message amounts to a disquieting “agree to disagree” point of view regarding pressing questions of equality—as if “both sides” in the debate over LGBT equality are on equal standing in a pluralistic democracy premised upon individual liberty.
There is something very attractive to a representation of a family not letting political differences shade personal affections. But, how can they not? It’s painful, and perhaps too unrealistic to watch Joy not stand up for herself in the face of her daughter’s bigoted behavior. Her casual disregard for her relationship with Lou, one supposedly on the precipice of marriage, is also troubling to observe. Rachel never accepts Lou, and that refusal forms the basis of a jarring laugh line in the final moments of the show.
In an author’s note in the program, Mr. Russell openly muses whether the rapidly changing legal and cultural environment in which this musical arrives might make its conceit “feel dated”. It does. The central tension of the story is easily solved in my mind: Rachel needs to get with the program or go. Having it both ways left a poor taste in my mouth.
Bottom Line: “Unexpected Joy”, a new musical at the York Theatre Company, contains several unexpected joys: a groovy, folk rock score, an intriguing original story mining contemporary themes, and a quartet of strong female vocal performances; and some unfortunate faults: a script and direction lacking dynamism, stereotypical characters and sitcom-deep dialogue, and a pat ending. The whole show feels dated and unrealistic, with an “agree to disagree” closing message about LGBT equality that I found troubling.