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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Justice: A New Musical
Marin Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent review of The Travelers

Lynda DiVito, Stephani Prentice, and Karen Murphy
Photo by Kevin Berne
The Supreme Court of the United States is an imposing institution. In addition to its architecture–a grand Greco-Roman temple of justice with a Corinthian portico and triangular pediment inscribed with the words "Equal Justice Under Law"–its position as the "court of last resort" and the secrecy surrounding the justices' deliberations all combine to make SCOTUS a powerful, somewhat mysterious, yet unassailable force in American life.

Yet, at its heart, the Supreme Court is merely a collection of mortal men and women applying their knowledge of the United States Constitution in order to maintain our status as a country that operates under the rule of law. It was not always thus, however. For the first nearly 200 years of its history, only men were seated as justices of the Supreme Court.

But Justice: A New Musical, written by Bree Lowdermilk (music), Kait Kerrigan (lyrics) and Lauren Gunderson (book), and now in production at Marin Theatre Company, elegantly strips away much of that mystery, telling the story of the first three women appointed to the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Thanks in part to Gunderson's storytelling ability (and Ashley Rodbro's keen direction), Justice rockets through its 90-minute length with fascinating insights into these three women: their backgrounds, their beliefs, their work ethic, their struggles and, ultimately and most satisfyingly, their deep humanity.

The three performers–Karen Murphy as Sandra, Lynda DiVita as Ruth, and Stephanie Prentice as Sonia–are powerhouses in their own rights, and clearly relish the opportunity to step inside the skins of three of the most powerful women in U.S. history. The most lovable of the three, at least in my mind and as written by Gunderson, is Ruth. On her first day in court, Sandra O'Connor welcomes Ruth and invites her to join in a 6:00 a.m. aerobics session she leads. Ruth wryly replies, "I tend to prioritize pastries at that time of day." (This line gets a callback later in the show that gets an even bigger laugh.)

There's very little legal wrangling going on here–the show focuses mostly on the personal interactions of these three women, and their struggles with sexism and the work they did to overcome that sexism and to use their power to reduce its effects for the next generations of women. Even Sandra, a life-long Republican and Reagan appointee, gets some props here. As Ruth tells her at one point, "you're the most powerful woman in America–you're a feminist whether you like it or not." Gunderson also tell how O'Connor served in the Arizona State Senate earlier in her career, where she tried to convince her colleagues to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. When this failed, she meticulously and doggedly worked to overturn every sexist statute in Arizona law that would have been nullified by the ERA.

Gunderson also takes us back in time, as each of the justices relate certain aspects of their younger selves: Sotomayor's diagnosis at age seven of diabetes and the woman doctor who both treated and inspired her; O'Connor's early days on a ranch; and Ruth having to work as a typist at a law firm despite her finishing top of her class at Cornell and becoming Phi Beta Kappa, and later being demoted from a position at the Social Security Administration when she became pregnant–something that was perfectly legal at the time. But not after Ruth, Sandra and Sonia had their say.

The music is both lyrical and, at times, soaring. All three voices are strong, but Lynda DiVito has an exceptionally strong belt that is perfectly in sync with the firebrand that was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Kait Kerrigan's lyrics are a wonderful complement to Lowdermilk's tunes: powerful and no-nonsense (rather like these women), yet occasionally poetic and gentle, as in "even in the darkness, the starless belly of the night."

The show's theme, that "women belong in all the places decisions are made" is spoken twice, but is intimated in every aspect of the show and in each moment (as themes are wont to do). Although these women have secured their place in history as icons of fairness and equality, Justice: A New Musical humanizes them in a way that somehow manages to make them even more iconic.

Don't even think about missing this powerfully entertaining and enlightening new musical–so when it hits Broadway someday in the future you can say you saw it when.

Justice: A New Musical runs through March 12, 2023, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-388-5208.