TimeLine Theatre Company. Book by Joseph Stein. Music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by Nick Bowling. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
The early 20th-century dramatist Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, which depicts hard times in Dublin tenements in the midst of the Irish Civil War, apparently didn’t strike mid-century Broadway critics and audiences as musical material. O’Casey’s play has become an oft-revived piece of the canon (most recently seen in Chicago in a 2008 production at the Artistic Home).
But this musical adaptation, with a book by Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) and score by Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock), opened on Broadway in March of 1959, and closed before the month was out. It’s never had a Broadway revival since. And it’s never been staged at all in Chicago, prior to Nick Bowling’s new production at TimeLine Theatre Company.
Musical theater aficionados won’t want to pass up the chance to see the show on its feet, lest we go another five and a half decades before we get another. Bowling’s production is marked by fine acting, and his alley staging makes smart use of space, though it’s a bit too open to convey the claustrophobic sense of families piled on top of one another in these two-room tenements. It’s doubtful that Blitzstein’s score could sound better than in this intimate arrangement, with music direction by Doug Peck and Elizabeth Doran and some rich voices, not least Marya Grandy’s as long-suffering matriarch Juno Boyle and Emily Glick as her daughter, Mary.
Blitzstein makes nice use of Irish folk sounds and his score contains some interesting devices—I was particularly taken by the counterpoint between Mary’s spoken dialogue and the pleading, extended notes sung by her lovelorn suitor Jerry (Jordan Brown) in “One Kind Word,” and the way that conceit is flipped in an agonizing second-act reprise.
But the music’s overwhelming lugubriousness, though appropriate to O’Casey’s mise en scène, can feel disconnected from the action, more commentary than character-based. And curiously, it seems to give more to do musically to the chorus of neighbors than to Juno or her preening drunk of a husband, “Captain” Jack Boyle (Ron Rains)—who makes more of an impression here than the stoical Juno, despite Boyle being the one who lost title billing.
Their son Johnny (Jonny Stein), who lost an arm in earlier conflict, doesn’t even get a sung number of his own—though he does get one of the musical’s true innovations, facing down his demons in a sort of nightmare ballet (choreographed here by Katie Spelman). But there are so few such moments in the script, with Joseph Stein’s book often faithful to O’Casey down to carrying over full exchanges of dialogue, that it can seem as though Stein and Blitzstein carried out their work in separate silos, stitching it uneasily together in the end.