(l to r) Allyson Kaye Daniel, Courtney Balan, Luba Mason and Celeste Rose in ‘Unexpected Joy.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It’s an interesting time to be a theatergoer in New York City these days. On the one hand, patriarchal storylines have resurrected on Broadway with revivals of My Fair Lady and Children of a Lesser God, while Off-Broadway productions are embracing the female voice with innovative new works like Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, Manhattan Theatre Club’s recent production of Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, and the latest from York Theatre Company: Unexpected Joy. The latter is the sweetest (bordering on saccharine) of the female-centric works, but nevertheless, delivers an enjoyable evening of folk rock, pop, and blues with a stellar four-person cast.
Unexpected Joy follows the journey of three generations of women as they navigate family dynamics and shifting roles. Joy (Luba Mason) is a fit and fierce baby boomer recording artist, preparing for a Provincetown farewell concert to honor her deceased husband. Her evangelical daughter Rachel (Courtney Balan) arrives with her teenage daughter Tamara (Celeste Rose), but neither are aware that Joy has moved on and is a new relationship with “lesbian warrior” Lou (Allyson Kaye Daniel).
While Joy is reluctant to label herself “L” as part of the 21st century LGBTQIA acronym, she is, nevertheless, in love with Lou and the pair plans on getting married. Granddaughter Tamara hears the news first and is thrilled that Lou has found love again. It takes a lot of trudging plot before Rachel finds out, and as one expects, she’s none too thrilled that mom is now with another woman.
Featuring a book and lyrics by Bill Russell (Side Show) and music by Janet Hood, Unexpected Joy’s greatest attribute is that of its throwback score, which nods to Laura Nero, Joni Mitchell, and some bluesy references a la Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Bringing those songs to life is a musically exceptional cast led by Mason. With kooky comic timing that might remind you of Lily Tomlin’s role on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, Mason means business when she tears into the score.
The supporting cast is equally as talented. Balan has the most difficult role as the far-right adult daughter who rebelled against her parents’ hippy-style upbringing by marrying an anti-gay extremist preacher. Somehow, though, she able to elicit empathy in spite of the character’s narrow-minded views. Rose’s Tamara is refreshingly unpolished, delivering a performance that forgoes musical theater flashiness for authentic teenage mannerisms. And as Joy’s soon-to-be-wife Lou, Daniel resists playing over-the-top, finding a softness within in a character that could easily be portrayed as a stereotype.
Director Amy Anders Corcoran and music director Beth Falcone navigate the material with a watchful eye, though Russell’s script feels a bit belabored and occasionally like an unwanted houseguest when you’d rather just listen to these ladies sing.
Unexpected Joy may not be the most unexpected form of musical theater storytelling, but joyful it is, especially when these four talented women let their vocal prowess shine.
The York Theatre at St. Peter’s
East 54th Street, East of Lexington Ave., NYC
Through May 27
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.