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MORE THAN JUST IRISH

By Mervyn Rothstein

Even if the Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein Juno doesn't work, it's important that such musicals are temporarily rescued from oblivion. Isn't that what City Center Encores! is all about?

All hail Victoria Clark and Celia Keenan-Bolger, mother and daughter in Juno, this season's second entry of the City Center Encores! series. It's just a pity that the show itself, Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein's musical tale of a Dublin family struggling amid the Irish troubles with the British in 1921, just doesn't work.

Juno ran for only 16 performances when it played at the Winter Garden (replacing West Side Story) in 1959. (And there was a reason for the short run. Actually seven reasons.

But let's get to the good stuff first. Clark, who won a Tony as best actress in a musical in 2005 as the mother in The Light in the Piazza, shows again that she is one of the best musical actresses around. In the title role at City Center, as the mother, Juno Boyle, she is the essence of strength, portraying a determination to survive, and keep her family alive, in a time of war. She dominates the stage, whether battling with her husband (seriously and humorously) over his need to avoid gainful employment, or coming to her daughter's aid in a time of distress.

Keenan-Bolger, who was Clark's daughter in Piazza before it reached New York and was so delightful in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is radiant as Mary, the daughter who seeks love in the wrong place. Her crystalline voice conveys the plaintive yearning of someone seeking to escape her limited existence, especially in I Wish It So, the one song from the score that has survived the years.

Eric Stern and his orchestra could not have presented that score any better. But then there's the score. Blitzstein known for The Cradle Will Rock and Regina- two other examples of his lifelong unwillingness to cater to Broadway convention- combines musical theater, Irish melody and classic opera, and it's an uneasy mix. In addition, the songs don't appear fully integrated with the book-they frequently seem just dropped in, and they often don't really advance the story.

Sometimes, as when Juno's husband, Captain Jack Boyle, has already comically conveyed his unwillingness to work, and Juno has complained, they just repeat the plot. We've seen that he won't work, and that he comes up with ridiculous excuses not to, and that's she's annoyed with him, and that he's annoyed with her for complaining, so let's sing a song about it-Old Sayin's- and go over it all again.

Stein's book is also a difficult mix, of comedy and tragedy. The combination worked brilliantly in Sean O'Casey's funny and heart-rending Juno and the Paycock, the play on which the musical is based. But when the music is added, it all kind of clashes.

Successful musicals can be made from surprising sources: a novel about a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread a tale of a barber who returns to London to enact a bloody revenge on the judge who destroyed his wife and exiled him to prison in Australia even a story of a mentally impaired young woman who finds romance in Italy.

But sometimes a work is just too resistant, and perhaps should never have been transported to the musical stage. Juno is a perfect example of what can happen. You sit there wondering why they bothered.

Garry Hynes's direction seems as confused about the tragi-comic mix as is Stein's book. Conrad John Schuck as Captain Boyle and Dermot Crowley as Joxer Daly, the captain's sycophantic friend, aren't comic enough to give sufficient relief. Speaking of comic relief, there's a chorus of four neighborhood women who are supposed to be funny, but aren't.

Tyler Hanes, though is fully convincing as the guilt-ridden Johnny Boyle, Jun