Conrad John Schuck, Victoria Clark, and company in Juno
(© Joan Marcus)
Conrad John Schuck, Victoria Clark, and company in Juno
(© Joan Marcus)
Though few Manhattan musical lovers aren't deeply grateful for the City Center Encores! series, not everyone agrees about its purpose. While many adherents appreciate transfer-'em-to-Broadway entries like Chicago and Wonderful Town, others believe nothing fulfills the program's mission like the Marc Blitzstein-Joseph Stein 1959 musical Juno, an adaptation of Sean O'Casey's grimly powerful Juno and the Paycock, which is sprawling across the City Center stage this weekend, with a cast headed by Tony Award winner Victoria Clark.

True, Blitzstein's score includes stunning numbers such as "I Wish It So" for young Mary Boyle (Celia Keenan-Bolger), and original choreographer Agnes de Mille worked up a stirring dream ballet for John Boyle (Tyler Hanes), who's suspected of being an IRA turncoat. But ultimately Juno didn't, and still doesn't, cohere -- which is what makes it the sort of curiosity ripe for the exposure and revelation certain Encores! habitues desire.

Moreover, the 1959 notion that the undertaking was ahead of its time now gives way to the suggestion that this Juno wouldn't be right at any time. While many of Blitzstein's numbers are melodically catchy, they often feel wedged into O'Casey's narrative according to a tried-and-true musical comedy formula. Are there pub scenes? Then there better be at least one pub song or two. Do gossiping women cross the stage? There better be a ditty for them -- whether extraneous or not. Indeed, this treatment of Juno -- reconstructed by David Ives as best as he could -- looks and sounds as if everything originally right and wrong with the property is on view.

Juno Boyle (Clark) tries to hold her family together while her husband, Captain Jack (Conrad John Shuck), belittles his spouse while spending every penny he has on drinks with sidekick Joxer Daly (Dermot Crowley). Daughter Mary, dreaming of a better life elsewhere, refuses romantic overtures from Jerry Devine (Michael Arden), while son John mopes around the house after losing one arm in the fight for a united Ireland. Things do look up for the Boyles when Charlie Bentham (Clarke Thorell) appears to tell them they've inherited a tidy sum of money and to court Mary. But knowing this is O'Casey, no audience member would ever believe the good fortune will last.

As directed by Garry Hynes, who knows O'Casey inside and out but has no musical credits on her resume, the cast gives the impression of being under-rehearsed -- if there is such a thing for a concert reading. Nevertheless, audiences will derive pleasure from the pairing of Clark and Keenan-Bolger (who played mother-daughter in the out-of-town version of The Light in the Piazza) duetting on the second-act "Bird Upon a Tree." Clark masterfully upends her upper-class caring mother from Piazza as a persevering lower-class frump, while Keenan-Bolger also demonstrates how rich her acting chops are -- even if her soprano chirping isn't entirely up to par. Schuck is an exuberant Captain, though often an unintelligible one, Arden sings ardently, and Hanes dances at fever pitch.

In the exquisite "I Wish It So," Mary Boyle attributes her desperate mood to "an unrest inside me." As of the first public performance, there's an unrest in the staged concert version, but it's ultimately incidental to the series' goal: to air the worthy Blitzstein score, which is met with banners flying.