With its themes of poverty, racism, sexism, gender complexity and familial dysfunction, “The Ballad of Little Jo” is an appropriately intense endeavor for both Tina Landau and the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s first foray into book musicals. But despite powerful direction, strong dramatic performances, some intensely moving moments and a generally pleasing and melodic score rooted in the palette of American folk, it’s hard to see a Broadway future for Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger’s earthy but hardly commercial first musical.
Ironically, the book to this initially progressive and immensely impressive show comes apart in the second act by relying on both predictable plot machination and racial archetype. We’d tolerate as much, perhaps, from a traditional musical comedy, but “Little Jo” wants to stake out different territory and needs then to play by its own rules. That’s the only way to create true believers who might talk some Gotham producers into risking their shirts on this thing.
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This story here is based on a real-life person named Josephine Monaghan, a long-time resident of the mining community of Silver City, Idaho, in the late 19th century. Miner Jo, or so the tabloid legend went, was thought for years by her neighbors to be a man but was revealed in death as a woman.
Monaghan’s life became the subject of a revisionist Western movie in 1993, directed by Maggie Greenwald under the same title.
Reid (who previously played football for the Cincinnati Bengals and penned “You Can’t Make Me Love You” for Bonnie Raitt) and Schlesinger (who teaches at NYU) have used the biopic movie as their base but have added a number of new, fictional elements to flesh out the story.
In the musical, a teenage Jo is packed off to California for a “new start” by her nasty Boston father after she shows up pregnant, sans husband. Pop decides that the kiddo will be raised by Jo’s sister Kate and will be told nothing of his errant mom. Robbed and kicked off the train in Idaho, Jo quickly becomes the victim of rape and then makes the decision to live as a man for her own protection. She joins a silver mining camp and hacks out a living and a place in a hardscrabble community.
Much dramatic irony is exploited by having characters mistake her gender. Jo develops a backslapping camaraderie with a miner named Jordan Ellis (David New) and must fight off the affections of Ellis’ wife, Sara (Jessica Boevers), who lusts after such an incomprehensibly sensitive man and creates an interesting lesbian subtext in the process. Meanwhile, Josephine’s son is growing up oblivious to her existence.
There’s also a young Chinese orphan in the camp. Initially accepted, Tin Man Wong becomes the object of racist attack when the mine goes bad. Once an adult, Tin Man (overplayed by the miscast Jose Llana) is also responsible for finally bedding Jo and helping her rediscover her femininity, although those acts have predictably tragic consequences for them both.
There are several pleasures here. Landau gives the material a distinctive and compelling staging replete with some splendid stage pictures, As is typical with her work, she favors a strong single setting — in this case, G.W. Mercier’s authentically gritty camp complete with the side of a mountain.
It’s a great look for the show but it removes the pleasure of set changes from the audience and causes problems during the sequences in Boston and elsewhere. The camp just will not go away.
Reid and Schlesinger’s homogenous score could use a couple of numbers in a noticeably different style, but songs like the jolly “Far From Home” and the sweet “I See Heaven” are delightful (although the latter makes no dramatic sense when it’s first is sung by the penniless heroine after she’s dumped in the middle of nowhere). This duo, clearly, has a future.
Along with predictably top-rank warbling, the terrific Kuhn captures the male gait and makes a very credible fella. She’s ably supported by an appropriately wacky bunch of miners and the nicely femme Boevers. As the strongest male presence, David New turns in typically splendid acting, but he does not have the vocal chops for the role.
Among the legion of book problems are a wobbly, ill-conceived narrative frame based around a sketchily drawn son searching for a mother who, for plot purposes, ignores his letters.
The authors also turn Tin Man into a stereotypical font of Oriental calm and wisdom. Only he see through Jo’s disguise even though he’s about six at the time. Why? Well, the show implies, the Chinese can see these things. It’s also surprising that it takes both rain and sex with a man for Jo to understand that she can’t deny her womanhood. Given the feminist themes, that’s a tired and surprising device.
That stuff could and should be fixed and there’s no reason for everyone to sweat about commercial prospects (Reid and Schlesinger’s upcoming “Shane” should fill a role that this “Little Jo” perhaps cannot). Even in its present from, this folksy ballad is a worthwhile piece of serious musical theater that packs a solid emotional punch, thanks in no small measure to Kuhn’s intensely empathetic performance.