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Unexpected Joy

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 3, 2018

Courtney Balan, Celeste Rose, Luba Mason,
and Allyson Kaye Daniel
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Unexpected Joy has a cast of four women and possesses a chick-flick plot that, while original, might have been lifted from a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Wait, wait, don't go away. The new but long-in-development musical at the York is a cheerful, rousing celebration that also boasts surprising complexity in its characters and their warped relationships. It gives its talented quartet ample opportunity to belt, strut, emote, and work out believable conflicts in believable ways. High-estrogen it surely is, but this male was thoroughly entertained. Credit composer Janet Hood and especially librettist-lyricist Bill Russell, who really, really knows how to write women.

He starts out a little shakily, awkwardly rolling out the exposition. Joy (Luba Mason), a svelte blonde who looks fantastic for someone with a teenaged granddaughter, is giving a concert saluting Jump, her late singer-songwriter partner, a Sixties sort-of-Pete-Seeger with whom she forged a successful, drug-laced career. Between gulps of the unprepossessing "How Do We Go On?", she spins out facts we need to know, and then we're off to Provincetown, where Joy has engineered a family reunion with her long-estranged daughter Rachel (Courtney Balan) and Rachel's daughter Tamara (Celeste Rose). "It's my goal this week to mend fences with you," she tells Rachel, a little too on-the-nose.

Sorry to reel off so much plot, but there's a lot of it. Rachel and Tamara have ventured to Ptown from their home state of Oklahoma, where Rachel, who's married to a fire-breathing televangelist and is a featured singer on his cable show, spreads the gospel and attempts to raise her free-thinking daughter strictly and spiritually. Rachel's never-seen husband likes especially to lash out at the LGBTQ community, which won't sit well with Joy, who's secretly gotten herself engaged to Lou (Allyson Kaye Daniel), a tart-tongued feminist who shows up unannounced and gets all the best lines. Tamara, meanwhile, is pursuing a singing-songwriting career of her own behind her mom's back, having just recorded a very dirty ballad, "Like a Good Girl." Rachel resents the liberal upbringing Joy and Jump gave her and Joy's irresponsible, live-for-the-moment ways; Joy isn't sure she wants to marry Lou; Tamara does rebellious-teen things to upset Rachel. Can any of the deep family wounds be healed? Will Joy go through with the wedding? Will all four women get up onstage to sing together at the memorial tribute to Jump? Or will Rachel, appalled by both her mother's coming out and what she's seeing in Provincetown, grab Tamara and hightail it back to Oklahoma?

You won't be very surprised by any of the answers, but what may catch you unexpectedly is how equitably Russell has dished out the good and bad human traits among these four. Rachel at first seems like a cartoon, a judgmental Anita Bryant, the sort that lefty musical-theater writers love to pick on. But later, in her eleven-o-clock number "Raising Them Right," which actually arrives around 9:30, we see the wrenching choices she's had to make and how, even when her behavior was unforgivably narrow, she acted through love. Lou, who talks sense to everybody and is the most stable personality up there, nevertheless has a frightening, unpredictable temper. Joy, in a permanent marijuana haze, is a walking example of how the Woodstock Generation left its members unprepared for responsible adulthood, but she's also fun and charismatic, kind of a Haight-Ashbury Auntie Mame. And Tamara is one of the more persuasive stage teens we've lately encountered, itching to get out from under her mom's restrictive wing, but hampered by a propensity for making rash, immature decisions.

The score's a healthy mix of diegetic and plot- and character-driven numbers, and many of Hood's tunes, neatly played by a four-piece ensemble, have something that sounds suspiciously like melody. Each actor gets a knock-'em-dead solo, and Russell is also adept at spinning out new lyrics to let each character shine—pay particular heed to "I Think I'm Losing My Voice," with Rachel, Joy, and Tamara each worrying individually about the upcoming reunion. Nobody's losing her voice, they're all terrific, and my favorite moment may have been the climax of "I Don't Wanna Get Married," where Mason hits an astonishing high note, leans back, takes another drag of weed, pauses, and wraps up the song. "Before You Arrive" is a touching having-a-child anthem that may remind you of "The Story Goes On" from Baby, and Rose, who captures Tamara's impatience and impulsiveness without overdoing them, nails "When Will I Have My Own?" A cast album's on the way; you'll want it.

Amy Anders Corcoran's direction is unfussy, and she allows pauses and silences where they're warranted, a rarity among directors of musicals. James Morgan's set is barely there, and Matthew Pachtman's costume design is suitably all loud flourishes for Joy and Tamara, unshowy business attire for Rachel, schmattas for Lou. Unexpected Joy wears its feminism rather loudly on its frilly sleeve, never more so than in "What a Woman Can Do," an ensemble that spouts I-am-woman-hear-me-roar sentiments over several verses. But with these engaging characters, bolstered by Russell's often funny dialog, the pride feels earned, and besides, it's a catchy tune. That, these days, is an unexpected joy indeed.

Unexpected Joy
Through May 20
York Theatre at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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