One-Armed Dancing and the Celtic aura of "Juno"

It’s a whirlwind couple of days for me. In the span of two days I’ll have had the privilege of hearing two favorite flops scores. Unbelievable, huh? Tonight it was Juno, the Blitzstein-Stein adaptation of Sean O’Casey‘s acclaimed tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock at City Center Encores! Tomorrow night it will be A White House Cantata, the concert revision of Bernstein-Lerner’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is being presented by the Collegiate Chorale at Frederick Rose Theatre.

There is much to admire in Juno. Running for only 16 performances in 1959, the musical was plagued by the lack of a solid director, as well as being considered far too dark for its time. I treasure the original cast album. The score is fascinating to no end: Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas lead the way as Juno and Jack Boyle, with support from Monte Amundsen as their willful daughter Mary and Jack MacGowran (Squire Danaher’s lackey from The Quiet Man, playing a similarly sycophantic role) as Boyle’s drinking buddy Joxer Daly. Tommy Rall was Johnny, their son, who was left with one arm and the guilt of betraying his comrade in the rebellion to the British. When a British attorney comes to town, he says that the Boyle’s have come into an inheritance, and let’s just say it is downhill from there.

There are certain issues to be had with the musical. One: Juno and the Paycock is considered so deft a masterpiece that many critics feel musicalizing the material was necessary. Two: (and this could be from the Encores! treatment, not necessarily the show itself) the libretto is underwhelming and lacking cohesion. Three: Garry Hynes could have done a better job staging the piece. Four: A query more so than a critique… would Juno have fared better if it had involved the Irish civil war of 1922 (when the play is set) as opposed to the Irish rebellion against the English of 1921 (a not so subtle shift for which the author’s received O’Casey’s permission).

I am certainly most grateful to the Encores! crew for sticking to their mission this year (as much as I loved the Follies) and giving us these shows. I couldn’t help but feel that there were many directorial choices that could have been fleshed out further. Victoria Clark was a force of nature as Juno, the sharp tongued and long-suffering (yet good-hearted) earth mother. She sang with conviction and made the most of what is, musically, an underwritten role. Conrad Shuck was amusing, if not entirely successful as the Captain. He sang with gusto, but he missed much of the humor, particularly as Joxer’s foil in “Daarlin’ Man” (Listening to the cast album afterward, was a night and day experience; I was actually laughing out loud at the number). A stand-out was Tyler Hanes as Johnny; while we didn’t get the first act ballet, we got the second act nightmare in which the character faces much of his demons and fears onstage. It was a particularly breathtaking moment, and as pointed out to me, really difficult because he’s dancing with one arm. Celia Keenan-Bolger was excellent as Mary, even if her upper register is a bit under-developed. Michael Arden was good if vocally underwhelming (You couldn’t give us a real Irish tenor for the resplendent “One Kind Word”? Or at least one who could sustain those notes under Mary’s dialogue?). Celia’s art songs were fine; though “My True Heart” got awkward when it became a soft-shoe duet. Keep it a solo. But dramatically those songs are a marvel. The orchestrations are full and rich; Blitzstein really was wondrous at capturing the feel and texture of Irish folk music (even a parody of a John McCormack mother-worshipping tear-jerker). The “Hymn” and staged funeral should have not been placed upstage, I feel it would have had a better impact had it been placed downstage, with a more prescient force.

The surprise of the night to me? Juno and Mary’s madrigal “Bird Upon a Tree” stopped the show. And what a gloriously sung piece it was too.

Not a perfect piece but I’ll take it. And I’d gladly like to see it tried and attempted to be fixed once again…. all for love 😉

Milo O’Shea was in the house last night; why wasn’t the man onstage?

Had a grand time at Seppi‘s afterward with some grand company and some daarlin’ white Russians. One flop down, one to go…