Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Arizona Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Ghost and And Then There Were None

Joan Ryan, Chanel Bragg, and Nancy Opel
Photo by Tim Fuller
In the program notes for the new musical Justice, Arizona Theatre Company Artistic Director Sean Daniels states that he wanted to do great plays about the great Arizona heroes, only to discover through a Google search that none existed. So, he called on his close friend, playwright Lauren Gunderson, and, along with composer Bree Lowdermilk and lyricist Kait Kerrigan, they crafted a new musical that focuses on the Arizona hero, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. However, O'Connor isn't the only focus in this musical, as Justice is fashioned as a way to connect the present to the past by linking an African American female judge going through her Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearing in present times to the groundbreaking work that O'Connor did as the first woman on the highest court in America, as well as the contributions of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This Arizona Theatre Company production (which had its world premiere at their Tucson location last month before moving to their Phoenix venue) has a wonderful cast and spirited songs, and while it could still use some polishing it makes for a crowd-pleasing production.

While this isn't actually the first play about O'Connor (I guess Daniels' Googling skills weren't that sharp), as Phoenix Theatre Company presented the play Sisters in Law a few seasons back which covers a lot of the same ground in the O'Connor and Ginsburg friendship, Justice is actually very good and a better piece of theatre than Sisters in Law.

Justice uses the story of the confirmation hearing of the fictitious African American judge Vera J. Douglas and her admiration, respect, and appreciation of O'Connor and Ginsburg, as well as Thurgood Marshall who was the first African American on the Supreme Court, as a way to tie the accomplishments of these two factual women to Vera as well as to anyone who also appreciates the groundbreaking work that these two famous, female Supreme Court justices accomplished. By giving equal weight to these three women's stories, Justice manages to present a spirited take on how O'Connor and Ginsburg, while they were political opposites, helped solidify many of our current legal rights while also establishing a close and unlikely friendship, and how their efforts greatly impacted a current female judge going through her Senate confirmation process.

I can't imagine that at the time work began on this musical that Daniels and the creators would know that when Arizona Theatre Company first premiered the show last month in Tucson, Ketanji Brown Jackson would be at the same time the first black woman confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court, or that Roe v. Wade, which is briefly touched upon in the musical, would appear to be on the verge of being overturned by the court's conservative justices, but those recent events only make this musical more timely and current.

Gunderson's book is very good and is mostly told in chronological flashbacks laying out the facts in both O'Connor's time on the Supreme Court as the sole female justice, and also the partnership she formed with Ginsburg and the accomplishments the two women achieved. The book also touches briefly upon the other female justices, including a quick mention of Ketanji Brown Jackson. The score is varied, with a nice balance of solos, duets and trios, spread equally across the three actresses, and while there aren't many individual songs that are that memorable, there are a few repetitive musical passages and phrases by composer Bree Lowdermilk that will stick with you and the lyrics by Kait Kerrigan are well crafted.

The cast is quite good, with Nancy Opel fierce and firm as O'Connor, Joan Ryan a completely lovable mensch as Ginsburg, and local Phoenix actress (and ATC's Associate Artistic Director) Chanel Bragg passionate and strong as Vera. Their three back-to-back solos toward the end of the 95-minute one-act musical are extremely well delivered, with Bragg's solo especially moving.

While there is a minimal set (by Tanya Orellana) and the costumes from Kish Finnegan are good, in Gunderson's pre-recorded pre-show announcement she mentions that the musical is evolving and will be presented here in a concert style. So, under Melissa Crespo's direction, the three actresses are seated at three desks placed across the stage, and they occasionally glance at their scripts. If the decision to present it this way was made to add new songs or new facts to the show it's understandable, but considering there wasn't anything added about the recent Roe v. Wade news and that there is only the briefest mention of Ketanji Brown Jackson, I'm not sure how this is different from what Tucson audiences saw a few weeks ago. Also, except for the three solos toward the end of the show, this in-concert staging keeps the actresses seated behind their desks for almost the entire show, which provides very little movement to the production or variety in the staging. Also, having the score played only by a pianist doesn't give much nuance to the music. Fortunately, Lisa Renkel's projections, which use a continual flow of archival photos, video footage, and sweeping graphic elements, are superb and add much needed movement to the production.

While Justice isn't entirely a successful musical, and the in-concert staging is just OK, it's definitely an intriguing topic with interesting characters, and Arizona Theatre Company's production is very good. As we are told in the show, O'Connor was famous for saying "get it done." I hope that Daniels, Gunderson, Lowdermilk, and Kerrigan are taking that directive to heart, as seeing how O'Connor and Ginsburg formed an unlikely sisterhood and got a lot of things done both individually and working together, I believe with some additional work, this musical about these two fascinating and groundbreaking women could easily become a staple at regional theatres.

Justice runs through May 22, 2022, at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-256 – 6995.

Book by Lauren Gunderson Music by Bree Lowdermilk Lyrics by Kait Kerrigan
Director: Melissa Crespo
Scenic Designer: Tanya Orellana
Costume Designer: Kish Finnegan
Lighting Designer: William Kirkham
Sound Designer: Twi McCallum
Projection Designer: Lisa Renkel
Orchestrations: Mike Pettry
Music Director: Annbritt duChateau
Movement Director: Michelle Chin
Stage Manager: Dom Ruggiero

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Vera J. Douglas: Chanel Bragg*
Sandra Day O'Connor: Nancy Opel*
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Joan Ryan*

*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States