The new musical being staged at the wonderful York Theatre Company has a lot on its plate that it would like to discuss. It’s a heartfelt story of three generations of female singers with long-held tensions battling it out in hopes to find common ground in their different worlds. With book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Janet Hood, Unexpected Joy is filled with some pretty good pop/folk/blues-tinged songs sung by a talented cast of singers, but there are a few problems that get in the way of this piece being filled to the brim with some expected Joy. The writing duo of Russell and Hood is attempting to explore a slew of conflicts that rise up out of the ashes when the overzealous conservative and ultra-religious daughter, Rachel, married to a hate-spewing T.V. preacher man, comes to visit her proudly sexually-liberated hippy mother, Joy in modern day Cape Cod. She has traveled to see her mother for some sort of wake for her recently deceased father, and although she admittedly has a huge problem with the fact that her parents never married, she and her rebellious teenage daughter, Tamara have no idea that they are about to meet Lou, the loud and proud black lesbian girlfriend of the sexually fluid Joy. But that’s not all, Joy and Lou plan to be have their wedding the day after the not-so-religious memorial. The wake is really a tribute concert to the singing duo that was her parents, and something this particularly stubborn and religious daughter has no intention of participating in. How unexpected this story line is, and how full to the brim of conflicts to address. It’s a multi-layered wedding cake, tottering on a wobbly table, threatening to fall crashing to the ground.
It opens with the song, “How Do We Go On?“, a song performed by the endearing Luba Mason (Pretty Filthy) who is playing the surviving member of the folk pop duo Jump + Joy. She is lovely and warmly engaging, singing a song to say goodbye to her lover and partner, but it has another purpose as well. This number, like most, suffer from the same dilemma, one where a song has to contain a duality of structure and theme, layering and forcing them to come to terms with some sort of musical bipolar disorder. Joy is performing many of the duo’s old and well-known songs in tribute to honor her dead singing partner, so in its construction, they have to sound like pop folk songs that would have been popular on their own accord so many years ago. In that aspect, this writing team does a phenomenal job recreating a style of song that works and reflect a catchiness that is solidly appropriate, but these songs also have to serve this musical story in some subtle manner, requiring it to enhance and expand the emotional and interpersonal journey of Unexpected Joy. It’s a good set-up, actually, to tell this tale, having these four women come together to rehearse and perform songs from their past and a few new ones from the youngest, Rachel’s daughter, Tamara, played realistic in temperament by Celeste Rose (Ogunquit Playhouse’s Sister Act). But it does put a lot of pressure on the songs to also add to the story that is happening in the here and now. The resulting songs, as directed by Amy Anders Corcoran (associate director: Escape to Margaritaville) are like a watered down punch, trying to hard to satisfy two different parties, one a funeral and the other, a wedding. They taste fine, but rarely delicious.
Tamara gets a few cute and fiesty songs, one being shocking and funny; “Like a Good Girl“, a sassy rebellious number at the beginning of this tale to showcase just how similar she is to her cool rock and rock hippy grandma, Joy. The other being the emotional kicker near the end, “When Will I Have My Own” that we know is meant to try to bandage up some wounds inflicted. The parallels between grandma Joy and grandchild Tamara is lovingly created, giving the two plenty of opportunity to bond, even if they have to engage in some pretty cheesy sitcom style dialogue, as do all. It helps set up some battle lines, but unfortunately for Unexpected Joy, almost everyone is on one side, with a lone soul on the other. For the sake of the New York humanity, I hope that’s true, but it doesn’t do this musical any favors.
The drama arrives in the polar opposite stances of Courtney Balan’s religious Rachel and progressive and outspoken Allyson Kaye Daniel’s powerhouse Lou. Daniel’s Lou is given the first solidly amazing song to sing, “She’s Got a Mind of Her Own“, finally giving the audience a first class belting of a great song. Before that moment, there was a feeling that we were going to shuffle along into the realm of the ‘pretty good’ and ‘fine’ for the whole show, but Daniel (We Will Rock You) drags us out and slaps us awake. Balan (Finding Neverland) has a gorgeous voice but sings in a very different style that suits the character of Rachel very well. She has some charming trios with her daughter and mother, but it is in her two solos when we can see just how heavenly her voice is, and how problematic the part is. The main problem surrounding her and her character is that we are not on her side emotionally in any manner. She tries hard to connect, but Rachel is the close-minded overly-religious one who can’t accept Lou because she is a lesbian, and possibly more so because she is a black lesbian, a dynamic that is not so clear in the writing (at least these writers left that one hot topic unattended, more or less). She definitely refuses to accept her mother’s desire and decision to marry, especially because it is to a woman. That is just unacceptable, and Rachel tells her daughter they have to leave, as they can’t, in good conscious, attend the ceremony as it goes against everything she believes. It’s a no-brainer which side we sit firmly on in this battle. So how do we listen to her songs attempting to tell her emotional space and side, when we know that no matter what she sings, we won’t be swayed. It’s impossible.
The battle with her mother escalates right up to almost the end of this musical, with a loud and very intense argument that tackles everything; intolerance, family ties, and different belief structures that are pulling them apart. We can tell that this story is trying to encompass some very big conflicts, but to see a way to a resolution or some manner for it to wrap up neatly in the remaining few minutes feels impossible. We are therefore left with another dilemma, feeling that any solution that they will come up with will feel forced or unrealistic. For Rachel to make a turn around will feel false, but for her to walk away, as she threatens to do, will leave a unresolved bitter taste in our mouth. So we find ourselves in a lose/lose situation, painting themselves into a corner, and that’s never a good place for a musical to find itself.
The last song attempts to rectify the situation and even if the writing team doesn’t fall into any of the traps they set up for themselves, they don’t entirely succeed either in making this simplistic after-school special musical feel authentic. One song won’t do it, no matter what Joy thinks; her solution for almost everything seems to be – let’s put that aside for later, and sing this song. I loved Joy’s midpoint number, singing a song of confusion and uncertainty, “I Don’t Wanna Get Married“, by far one of the best and more heartfelt numbers in this 90 minute musical, but the problematic place Joy finds herself is also just a small subplot that isn’t really developed or handled all that well. This wedding cake has far too many layers, and that emotional space is almost one too many. Unexpected Joy is trying to hard to make a social impact. It’s so big that it is almost impossible for it not to topple over, falling in on itself as if you’ve opened the door in the early stages of baking, checking in on your creation too often before the batter has set. That causes a cake to fall in on itself, but at least this musical is not too sweet or undercooked, but is balanced by a good dollop of sass and spirit, with each of the four ingredients singing strongly. As a whole, the aftertaste is a bit bland, trying too hard to please too many people at two very different parties. Unexpected Joy chimes in on far too many topics, and should listen to the immortal words of Rachel when she says to Lou in the final moments, “Don’t push it“..
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