If you see the new musical Unexpected Joy at Off Broadway’s York Theatre Company, you’ll spend a lot of time doing mental mathematics. How exactly is Luba Mason, who plays the title character, Joy, supposed to have an 18-year-old granddaughter?
As the recently widowed singer-songwriter Joy, half of the apparently famous musical duo Jump and Joy, Mason barely looks middle-aged. Okay, let’s think about this: Say Joy pulled a Gilmore Girls and had her daughter, Rachel (Courtney Balan), when she was 16. After all, she and Jump were free spirits who never married, enjoyed Herbal Magic brownies, and originally named their daughter Rainbow; she might have been a very young mother. (Joy is still a free spirit. You can tell from her peasant blouses and enviable collection of leather jackets.) But given that Rachel went on to marry an ultraconservative televangelist preacher, Rachel must have been a little older when she had her daughter, Tamara (Celeste Rose). At least 18, right? So Joy would have to be 52, at the very least. Maybe Mason is; I’m not in the habit of asking actor’s ages. But even under harsh stage lighting, no one would mistake her for a grandmother. (Unrelated: If anyone has insight into her skin-care regime, please share.)
Perhaps I’m overanalyzing. Mason (who, incidentally, is marvelous) looking less-than-grandma-age is the least of the problems with Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s well-intentioned but wan Unexpected Joy.
The show’s setup—and its hazy framing device—is a memorial performance for Jump. A little predictable, but convenient, as it gives Joy, Rachel, Tamara, and Joy’s friend Lou (Allyson Kaye Daniel) an excuse to stand around and sing a bunch of songs, concert-style. But before practically every group number, there’s a discussion about the decision to sing. Just a few snippets, out of succession: “Let’s do a song”; “Let’s all do it together”; “That song rocks.” As Tamara says at one point, “Can we just sing the damn song?” That’s no way to build up to the sweet lullaby “Before You Arrive” or the bluesy anthem “What a Woman Can Do.” When someone just walks out and starts wailing—like Lou does with the torchy “She’s Got a Mind of Her Own”—the song lands.
Getting from song to song—that pesky libretto!—is the problem. Russell (Side Show) has a knack for one-liners, but not for plotlines. Joy telling the tale of her overnight arrest gets laughs and becomes a running joke, but the premise is a head-scratcher. She was at a women’s march in Provincetown, when “these goons started taunting us—calling us ‘snowflakes’ and the P-word and the C-word. So we took off our pants and started chanting ‘You ain’t grabbing this!’” Goons? In P-town? How were they not ridden out of town on a rail?
And when the ladies aren’t in rehearsal or on the concert stage, when they’re angry and contemplative and bursting with feeling, the numbers are far less successful. “Raising them right/ Is always the goal/ But you have to accept/ What you can’t control” sings Rachel in the treacly “Raising Them Right.” And in her duet with Lou, the weirdly creepy “You Are My Worst Nightmare”: “This is far too scary/ To possibly be true/ No way in reality/ Would I go near the likes of you!”
Such work from Russell—who, along with Hood, wrote the thrilling Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens—is, well, unexpected.
Unexpected Joy opened May 3, 2018, and runs through May 27. Tickets and information: yorktheatre.org