Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
The Ballad of Little Jo
Two River has spared no expense in their revised presentation of this earnest and likeable musical. The theater's Artistic Director, John Dias, makes his directorial debut after nearly a decade at the company's helm; he is further credited as a co-librettist with composer Mike Reid (known primarily as a Grammy-winning pop songwriter) and lyricist Sarah Schlesinger (who serves as chair of the graduate musical theater program at NYU). Scenic designer Michael Carnahan has turned the stage of the Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theater into a convincing Idaho wilderness, constructed from attractive wood paneling and distressed mesh netting. Tony-winner Jess Goldstein's spot-on costumes and Jennifer Tipton's atmospheric lighting further aid in creating a frontier landscape where people could reinvent themselves out of financial and personal necessity, and the onstage band (conducted by John O'Neill) performs Reid's folk-tinged score with idiomatic verve.
The Ballad of Little Jo gets off to a promising start. Josephine Monaghan (Teal Wicks) leaves the son she's birthed out of wedlock with her married sister and sets off for San Francisco, hoping to earn enough money to return and reclaim her child. A series of events puts her off the train in Idaho, where she is abducted and raped in short order by a pair of nefarious soldiers. For the sake of self-preservation, Josephine shears her shoulder-length hair and dons male attire; she is now Jo, a mysterious stranger who buys a claim and settles down in the mining town of Silver City. Initially greeted with skepticism, Jo quickly becomes friendly with Jordan Ellis (Eric William Morris, vocally and physically strong), who is something of a town leader, and attracts the attention of Jordan's would-be fiancée, Sara (Jane Bruce).
Prior to her transition, Josephine sings a gorgeous ballad called "Life!," in which she enumerates all of the hopes and dreams she holds for herself and her son. In musical theater parlance, this is called an "I want" song, and it has become something of a cliché; not here, with Schlesinger's alternately ecstatic and sensitive lyrics caressing Reid's heart-pounding melody. Wickswhose shimmering voice segues effortlessly from a free and easy top to a rousing lower registerbelts the number to the rafters, but never sacrifices connection to the character or the text. My heart pounded with possibility as I listened.
That none of the subsequent material rises to the level of "Life!" is a great disappointment. There is nothing particularly offensive, and there is a lot to like. But The Ballad of Little Jo is not the kind of musical you fall in love with. Although Reid's music remains unfailingly tuneful (and more complex than it might seem on the surface) throughout, Schlesinger's lyrics turn rudimentary and forgettable as the performance progresses. The book suffers from a staid narrative style that relies too heavily on the ensemble acting as rotating direct-address narrators; the resulting scenes end up little more than quick set-ups for the next song.
The musical rarely goes as far as it could with the more interesting elements of the plot. That Jo has a child back in Boston is something that, after a period of time, seems trotted out only when convenient. The longing that Sara feels for Joand its concomitant dangeris never explored to its fullest potential, despite a gorgeous ballad ("There Is This Man") that Bruce and Wicks sell for all it's worth. Neither is the introduction of a disruptive outsider in act two: Tin Man Wong (sensitively played by Daniel K. Isaac), who reawakens Jo's long-dormant female desires. Tin Man is refreshingly free of racial stereotyping, but his presence is little more than a vehicle for the musical's predictable denouement, which comes fast and loose with very little set-up.
More problematic still is that Wicks is never wholly believable as a man. Eighteen years elapse between act one and act two, and although none of the characters appear to visually age, we are asked to believe that Jo has lived nearly two decades in this community with nary a suspicion of her true sex. Yet Wicks' lithe carriage throughout foregrounds the feminine, and her voice remains continuously high-pitched and sing-song. Tin Man Wong sniffs her out as a woman almost immediately; given the particulars on display, this is no real surprise.
Ultimately, The Ballad of Little Jo also suffers from the problem of legend-making. In order to turn Jo into a heroic figure, everything ties up a little too neatly in the end. It would have been nice for the creators to have wrestled a bit more with the overall allure of the frontierperhaps truly the last time in American history when a person could entirely disappear into a new identity. And I would have liked a stronger window into Jo's psychology, presented here mostly in fits and starts. Two River's goal of giving second-looks to plays and musicals already out of the development pipeline is admirable, but the work of making The Ballad of Little Jo into a first-rate American musical is not quite complete.
The Ballad of Little Jo continues through Sunday, June 25, 2017, at Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ. Tickets can be purchased online at www.tworivertheater.org or by calling 732-345-1400.