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Theatre in Review: Unexpected Joy (York Theatre Company)

Allyson Kaye Daniel, Courtney Balan, Luba Mason, Celeste Rose. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Unexpected Joy starts on a wry, welcoming note with Joy, a pop singer of a certain age, gliding her way through a lovely, rueful tune titled "How Do We Go On?" It's the kind of thing you might have heard on the radio in the late 1970s or early '80s -- a little bit Linda Ronstadt with a touch of Joni Mitchell, a dollop of Emmylou Harris, and maybe a soupçon of Cher. The lyrics are about changing times and lovers who move on; it's not a chartbuster, but the words and music strike an attractive note of melancholy and, for all we know, the rest of the evening will maintain the same thoughtful, mellow mood.

Well, not exactly. Joy is half of Jump and Joy, a legendary duo sundered by Jump's recent death. Jump was Joy's partner in life as well, and she is hosting a memorial concert in place of the funeral he never wanted. Scheduled to take part is Joy's daughter, Rachel -- née Rainbow -- now the wife of a televangelist and so scandalized by her mother's aging-rocker ways that it's a wonder she doesn't turn into a pillar of salt. Rachel, the in-house singer on her husband's show, didn't know she is expected to perform; she primly reminds her mother, "As I've told you repeatedly, my being born out of wedlock sets an unfortunate example for David's congregation." With Rachel is her eighteen-year-old daughter, Tamara, who is about to be shipped off to a Bible college -- where couples are forbidden even to hold hands -- and is in open revolt over it. Little does Rachel know that Tamara likes to sneak off to a coffee house -- well, it's a Starbucks -- to perform "Like a Good Girl," a little ditty she wrote about schoolgirl prostitutes.

These facts are enough to guarantee a typically tense family reunion, but things get exponentially worse when Joy lets drop the news that, the day after the concert, she is getting married -- to a butch lesbian named Lou.

If this sounds like a sitcom pitch, you've got the right idea, because Bill Russell's book sets up this houseful of clashing viewpoints with few concerns about credibility. When asked why, after decades with a man, she has chosen Lou, Joy says, evasively, "I've always been fluid like that." Lou is stunned to learn about Rachel's religious affiliation, which is hard to credit: If a celebrity like Joy had an evangelist daughter, surely it would be the stuff of a dozen People Magazine features. The show struggles to make Rachel even modestly sympathetic, balancing each bigoted trait with something admirable. Yes, her husband's charitable foundation advocates quarantining anyone with HIV infection -- but they also fight human trafficking. And yes, she complains that "the liberal media" is run by Jews -- but Tamara firmly tells Lou, who is black, that her mother is no racist.

Such contradictions matter greatly because Unexpected Joy lives or dies on the audience caring whether this fractious little family holds together. But all the characters do is restate their positions, repeatedly, rendering the question unimportant and uninvolving. The whole plot setup feels like, well, a setup: One has to take on faith the Joy -- Lou romance, since Joy, who has cold feet, spends her time trying to get out of the wedding. And, really, would Lou, who denounces television as "just another mouthpiece for the patriarchy," be reading Bride Magazine, fussing over flowers, and nagging Joy to pick out wedding rings?

Admittedly, Unexpected Joy goes down easily, thanks to some genuinely funny wisecracks, a passel of tuneful songs, and a quartet of performances that make everything seem better than it is. Tamara, who is fed up with her parents' ulterior displays of piety, snaps that Rachel likes songs with titles like "Jesus Friended Me on Facebook." Lou, discovering the truth about Rachel, says, with laugh-getting understatement, "Well, well, well, Joy skipped some bullet points here." Rachel, presenting a bill of grievances about her childhood, says, "And how about that time I ate the brownies laced with marijuana?" "They were clearly labeled 'Herbal Magic'," says Joy, not quite exonerating herself.

In addition to those already mentioned, other audience-pleasers in the score (lyrics by Russell, music by Janet Hood) include "What a Woman Can Do," an upbeat anthem that allows all four ladies to harmonize; "Better Times are Comin'," a gospel ballad that provides a bit of insight into Rachel's character; "When Will I Have My Own?," in which Tamara yearns for independence; and the title tune, in which Joy and Lou cut loose in a rare moment of unfettered affection.

Luba Mason makes it easy to believe that Joy is a star, especially when, in a ballad about her fear of wedlock, she holds a note longer than one thought possible, then pauses to blow a couple of smoke rings before wrapping up; she amuses with her stock explanation for the sins of her youth: "We were musicians!" Courtney Balan scrubs some of the priggishness off Rachel's character, even finding humor in her: Grabbing Tamara in an embrace, she says, "I try to get her to join the choir, but of course she won't do anything I ask," the last half of the line delivered in a sing-song that is equal parts love and hostility. Tamara is a standard rebellious teen, but Celeste Rose has a winning personality and a big voice. As Lou, Allyson Kaye Daniel only needs to pause and throw a gimlet look to earn a laugh; she also throws away lines expertly, such as when she refers to Rachel as "Christ-zilla." Given a script that treats its culture-wars subject matter as superficial gag lines, the director, Amy Anders Corcoran, sensibly settles for a light, fast-paced tone.

James Morgan's set design, which combines an onstage look that features lighting units embedded in the proscenium and portals with a couple of high-back chairs and a floor lamp, is a tad confusing; apparently, Lou wants to create a homey look for the tribute concert, but I could never quite tell where the characters were supposed to be. Matthew Pachtman's costumes are fairly on the money, although I rather doubt that Rachel would let Tamara run around with a bare midriff. Ken Wills' lighting artfully blends regular stage washes with in-performance looks for the rehearsal and concert scenes. Julian Evans' sound design is clear and never intrusive.

Unexpected Joy is honest enough to admit that any family truces are highly conditional. The concert goes on, but it's clear that all four ladies will have many gritted-teeth moments at any future get-togethers. And, personally, I'll give you even odds that Tamara ends up burning that Christian college to the ground. -- David Barbour

(4 May 2018)

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