The synchronicity is remarkable. The same weekend “Gypsy” gets ushered back to Broadway for the fourth time since its 1959 premiere, a far less celebrated show from that same year is being dusted off, largely unseen since it closed after just 16 performances. Musical scholars blame the clamorous failure of Marc Blitzstein and Joseph Stein’s “Juno” on dour material, director problems and vocally under-equipped leads. Admiration for the score, however, has been kept alive by the original cast recording and will no doubt be further fanned by Garry Hynes’ haunting and beautifully sung Encores! production.
Having staged the work of Irish playwrights from various generations — notably Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and Brian Friel’s “Translations” on Broadway, and the complete plays of J.M. Synge in a revelatory marathon that also made a stop in New York — it’s no surprise Galway-based Hynes connects with the material.
The show was based on Sean O’Casey’s 1924 play “Juno and the Paycock,” set in the Dublin tenements in the early 1920s against the fight for freedom, but more pointedly focused on a mother’s painful endurance in the face of war, misfortune and male fecklessness. (Stein’s book moves the setting back one year from the play to 1921 and the Irish War of Independence against British occupation, shifting from the Civil War to the divisive conflict that caused it.)
Directed with brisk sensitivity, occasional solemnity, rough-hewn textures and deep yet unsentimental feeling for the flinty working-class characters and their community, Hynes’ staging reveals “Juno” as a conflicted, uneven piece, but a fascinating one. And under energetic music director Eric Stern’s needling baton, the brooding beauty and complexity of Blitzstein’s score creep under your skin, note by minor-key note.
But there’s an internal battle being waged in the show that’s almost as hard-fought as the national struggle backgrounding the action. While “Juno and the Paycock” maintains the necessary balance to function as tragicomedy, “Juno” is far more arresting in its darker, folk-operatic moods than in the lighter moments when it tries to be a conventional musical. Its comic numbers and character songs too frequently shut down momentum.
This is a serious-minded show at heart, and its raucous pub ditties or prattling complaint litanies from four gossipy townswomen feel more like Blitzstein pandering to popular musical taste, jarring against the subtle expressiveness evident elsewhere.
But the good stuff is very good. As the careworn matriarch saddled with a boozing, indolent husband, Victoria Clark may be a fraction too young and have more natural warmth than the role requires, but her Juno is a quietly wrenching figure, her firmly set jaw alternately conveying exasperation, apprehension or sadness.
Clark’s delivery of “Song of the Ma” is a rueful testament to maternal sacrifice, full of gentle humor. Even when she’s elated, as in “On a Day Like This” after her husband Jack (Conrad John Schuck) learns of a windfall inheritance, the treasures of which Juno sings are chiefly love and family. She’s a grounded, stoic woman inured to hard work and little thanks, and Clark gives her stirring humanity and not an ounce of vanity.
Even better is Celia Keenan-Bolger as Juno’s daughter Mary. Singing in a lilting Irish brogue, her voice is achingly pure on the show’s best-known number, “I Wish It So.” She lets the character’s feistiness ripple through the yearning so we believe her when she confesses “I’ve an unrest inside me,” and we fear for her when she adds, “Such a thumpin’ inside me/That I think I’ll go mad.” The exquisite delicacy of “Bird Upon a Tree” sung by Clark and Keenan-Bolger is a musical high point, and the closeness between mother and daughter (a relationship they played before in pre-New York productions of “A Light in the Piazza”) is sketched with lovely economy.
Keenan-Bolger’s focused performance elevates Mary’s need to escape — or at least to be transported by real love — beyond the character’s familiar contours. She also aces the difficult phrasing and tricky, counter-attack melodies of Blitzstein’s songs, something at which not all the cast excels.
Schuck strikes the right blustery tone as blowhard philosopher and layabout “Captain” Jack, falsely pumping up his limited sailor experience into an illustrious seafaring career. But at times he seems uncomfortable with the odd tempi of his numbers, many of them with rascally sidekick Joxer (Dermot Crowley, also a poor fit musically). Crowley undersells both the opportunistic side of his fawning character and his fundamental lack of respect for Jack. The broad-strokes comic styles of both actors often clash with the more intimate portraiture of Clark and Keenan-Bolger.
The younger male leads are more in keeping with the show’s prevailing sobriety. As the family friend too meek to earn Mary’s love, Michael Arden brings poignancy and a clear, sweet tenor to “One Kind Word,” while Clarke Thorell has a clean-cut charm that keeps you guessing about his intentions as the lawyer who brings news of Jack’s inheritance and sticks around to court Mary.
As her maimed and withdrawn brother Johnny, who lost an arm fighting with the IRA and is now suspected of having sold out a comrade, Tyler Hanes underplays effectively through the first act and then explodes in act two into a stunning nightmare dance — much of it performed with the bloody ghost of his fallen friend (Kurt Froman). The visceral sequence is reason enough to see the production. In addition to some sprightly step-dancing, jigs and waltzes elsewhere in the show, choreographer Warren Carlyle does especially striking work here, fully acknowledging the stamp of original choreographer and dream-ballet queen Agnes De Mille.
Some of the transitions seem a little abrupt in this clipped-back version of Stein’s book and the portentous violence of the finale is inadequately set up. But director Hynes knowingly works the precariousness of lives lived in the shadow of death, with sorrows piling up and celebration shifting to grief in an instant.
If “Juno” remains torn between two identities, Hynes succeeds in bringing the musical’s somber, heartfelt core to life. Coupled with the precision and care given to Blitzstein’s rich, Irish-inflected score by Stern and the 30-piece Encores! orchestra, this makes for a rare opportunity to see a flawed but transfixing work.