The York Theatre Company Promises Unexpected Joy in a New Musical
Three generations of musicians deal with family matters in song.
The expectations for Unexpected Joy, now running at the York Theatre Company, are pretty firmly set as soon as you learn that "Joy" doubles as the name of the protagonist — a carefree hippie musician (played by the commanding Luba Mason) who hit the big time as half of the duo group Jump and Joy. Writers Bill Russell (lyrics and book) and Janet Hood (music) don't give a much lighter hand to the show's remaining 95 minutes, despite its attempt to venture into conflicts of ideology among three generations of musical ladies. Conflicts surrounding race, religion, and flowing sexual proclivities are all touched on, but the end result is like what you'd imagine would come from a Netflix version of The Brady Bunch — it has some leeway for edgier content but doesn't exactly know how to use it.
As the title suggests, Unexpected Joy, as directed by Amy Anders Corcoran, sticks to a lighter spirit, making everything easy to swallow. That can certainly be a positive quality in a musical, but when the subjects intended to challenge the characters are softballs for the audience, the spoon-feeding becomes less appreciated. The biggest challenge is presented to our pot-smoking government-protesting matriarch Joy (costume designer Matthew Pachtman has the most fun with Joy's Carole King-like outfits) and her evangelical Christian daughter Rachel (her given name is actually Rainbow), who comes to Cape Cod to visit her mother with her own daughter Tamara (Celeste Rose). Rachel (played by Courtney Balan) has never gotten over the fact that her parents never got married like a traditional family, but she's come to pay tribute to her late father, Jump, for whom Joy is hosting a memorial concert. Little does she know her mother has finally decided to tie the knot — with a woman.
The idea shakes Rachel to her Bible-thumping core, especially since her husband is a famous televangelist who preaches against homosexuals on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Tamara is totally team Grandma (or "Glam-ma" as Tamara dubs her) and harbors a secret dream of becoming a musician just like Joy (and very much not like her mother who sings Christian tunes on her husband's TV show).
Of course, there are people in the world for whom the idea of homosexuality remains as shocking as ever, so it would be unfair to say that Rachel's character is out of date. But as Russell becomes didactic in drawing a line between his hero (Joy) and villain (Rachel, though Balan does her best to make the character appear well-meaning), the show seems to lose sight of the fact that it is preaching to the converted, not relaying new or revelatory information.
The book's weaknesses become even more frustrating when compared to some of the truly lovely songs in Russell and Hood's score. The three ladies harmonize on the sweet maternal ballad "Before You Arrive" (Rose's voice is particularly impressive among the trio), Allyson Kaye Daniel (giving us comedy and a killer voice as Lou) belts the heck out of the jazzy number "She's Got a Mind of Her Own," and all four get to share the mic in "What a Woman Can Do," a song that's on the bill for Jump's tribute concert (Bath Falcone, Brian Hamm, Jack Morer, and Jeff Potter make up the talented onstage band). The more removed from the story, the better the musical numbers — as evidenced by the final song, "Common Ground," which wraps things up with an on-the-nose number about family reconciliation.
Don't expect anything unexpected in this musical, but if you're looking for joy, you'll find it in some of the show's delightful melodies.