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Chicago by John Olson

Juno
TimeLine Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Hit the Wall


Marya Grandy
The program notes say that Irish playwright Sean O'Casey agreed to let his play Juno and the Paycock be adapted as a musical after seeing how much money his friend George Bernard Shaw was making off My Fair Lady, the adaptation of his play Pygmalion. The musical that resulted is no My Fair Lady, but not because it isn't a decent musical or that the source material isn't a good play. Juno is a good musical, though not a great one, but one without a character you can really root for and lacking the sort of triumphant or at least optimistic ending that audiences love. The story, which in Joseph Stein's adaptation follows the O'Casey play faithfully, concerns the Boyles, a family living in the tenements of Dublin during the Irish Civil War in 1921. The father, "Captain Jack," who in wife Juno's words struts like a "paycock" (peacock), is an amiable drunk who refuses to work, claiming he has too much pain in his legs. Daughter Mary, on strike from her job, is pursued by Jerry Devine, a modest young man in whom she has no interest. Son Johnny is unemployed, having lost an arm in the Irish War of Independence and believing he's unemployable. Only mother Juno works, and she keeps the family together and functioning, on some level, single-handedly.

You'd think our sentiments would lie with Juno, and they do, but we feel a bit distanced from her because she's more enabler than heroine until the play's very end. True, she finally rebels, but only after circumstances become dire. (Spoilers ahead for those who are unfamiliar with the play.) The impoverished family believes they have inherited a small fortune from a distant cousin and immediately buys all sorts of luxuries on credit, while Mary begins an affair with the attorney who wrote and is executing the will of Jack's late cousin. The money never materializes, the attorney runs off, leaving an unmarried and pregnant Mary, Mary is rejected by suitor Jerry and kicked out of the house by Captain Jack, and Johnny is murdered for playing both sides in the developing Irish Civil War. Juno comes up with a resolution, but not a happy one—and besides, she's lost some of her saintliness by going along with the spending spree that would surely have squandered the inheritance even if it had materialized.

Of course there had been a few dark and tragic musicals before Juno's 16-performance Broadway run in 1959, but they had heroes and heroines people cared about more fully. A hit dark, dramatic musical was still some eight years away, with Cabaret. Ahead of its time, Juno was destined for the likes of its Encores! revival in 2008 and a mention in Ken Mandelbaum's chronicle of Broadway flops, "Not Since Carrie," rather than Tony awards and box office lines down Broadway.

Approaching Juno as another way to experience some of O'Casey's tragicomedy and a chance to enjoy the lovely score by Marc Blitzstein, it's not at all an unsatisfying experience in TimeLine Theatre's fully-staged, immersive production directed by Nick Bowling. Even if it's not a Mama Rose sort of turn, Juno is a great role and Marya Grandy, an actress with New York and Chicago credits, is terrific in it. She delivers Juno's witty put-downs dryly, while still showing her concern for her family and neighbors—juggling their demands with skill as well as understandable exasperation. She has impressive vocal chops, though the score doesn't give her the sorts of breakthrough numbers normally associated with a role that is also the show's one-word title.

Juno, in fact, is more of an ensemble show than a star vehicle and the casting here is without a weak link. Chicago's Ron Rains (not to be confused with Broadway's Ron Raines) is a slyly charming and likable in spite of himself Captain Jack. The young Emily Glick as Mary gives beautiful renditions of some of the show's prettiest numbers. Jordan Brown as Jerry knocks the gorgeous ballad "One Kind Word" out of the park. Jonny Stein doesn't get to sing much, but he shows palpable (and understandable) anxiety as the doomed Johnny Boyle, urgently executing a nightmare ballet (choreographed by Katie Spelman) in which Johnny is surrounded by enemies who would kill him. In supporting roles are some of Chicago's best-known and most honored musical theater talents, like Peter Oyloe, Kelli Harrington, Michael Reckling and Matthew Keffer. With folks like these—who normally play leads—providing backup, it's no surprise that music director Doug Peck's singers deliver strong solos from secondary characters and exceptional choral work for the group numbers, if sometimes a bit loudly for the small TimeLine space.

A five-piece band conducted by Elizabeth Doran is seated in a mock "pub" just outside the seating and playing area. The audience enters through the pub into a replication of the Boyles' home, complete with wallpaper on the three walls surrounding seating sections and the playing area. John Culbert's scenic design, Emily Guthrie's props and Alex Wren Meadows' costumes complete the environmental authenticity, with Keith Parham's lighting helping to suggest other locales besides the Boyle apartment within the unit set.

Stein's book is filled with long book scenes, which I suspect are taken directly from O'Casey's text, and Juno seems a good introduction to that classic of Irish drama. Blitzstein's lovely score helps establish time and place, and heightens the emotions of these Irishmen—known for being a particularly musical people. If the whole thing doesn't exactly take flight in the way the most popular musicals do, it's still a piece worth visiting for those interested in Irish and historical drama, or lost musicals. It may not have as much appeal for those who don't fall into one of those three buckets, but none of that is the fault of this lovely production, which delivers a musical performance without compromise while admirably serving the script of this significant play.

Juno will play TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington, Chicago, through July 27, 2014. For tickets visit www.timelinetheatre.com or call 773-281-TIME (8463).


Photo: Lara Goetsch

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-- John Olson



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