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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Juno

Or An Irish Fiddler


Midway through act one of Juno I was sized by a sense of deja vu. Where had I seen this lively party ripped asunder? Wince at these boxy romances which shall end in tears? Laughed at these drinking songs and woe betideings and old couple’s quarrels? Intermission and the program brought the matter to light and my hand to my brow: Dioi! But of course, “book by Joseph Stein” famed writer of Fiddler of the Roof. And here his beloved tropes and troubles have been cultivated from Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock and thrive amongst the rotted wood and cobbled streets of 1920’s Dublin. Stein has actually dipped his ladle into a deeper the well of human misery than the world of Sholem Aleichem; to paraphrase Frank McCourt (who would be expected to know these things) there is no life worse than the one that is, “Irish, Catholic, and Poor”.


Having recently won home rule by way of armed rebellion and slight of hand diplomacy, the partially liberated nation of Ireland stands between bloody rebellion and bloodier civil war. Not that that matters much for Juno Boyle (Marya Grandy) who has enough troubles “‘ta deial wit, tank ye very mutch”. Her husband Jack (Ron Rains) is twice as alcoholic, dead beat and useless as any Dubliner (which saying a lot); her son Johnny (Josh Kohane) had his arm shoot off during the recent troubles and won’t leave his room; and her daughter Mary (Emily Glick) has spent “tae mutch time raiden” progressive turn of the century literature and completely ignores any chance of setting herself up nice and proper. But then a handsome, stylish and very English lawyer (Peter Oyloe) waltzes in with unexpected news (Hint: “If I were a rich man, Ya ha deedle deedle bubba bubba deedle deedle dum ...” ). Now Juno’s world is turned upside down and while the swirl and excitement seems to promise a golden future, only G-d can say where and how the pieces will fall.

Stein’s and O’Casey love of banter and trouble are well in evidence here, and capture the classic Irish temperament of laughing through tears, while holding out one hand in kindness and brandishing a butcher knife in the other. But their talents are eclipsed by the songs, both roly-poly playful and knock-your-hat-off powerful, of Marc Blitzstein. While it’s true that, musically, he give’s Mary the short shrift (not his fault, everybody does) and the majority of the songs have a glaringly feverish workers-of-the-world-unite feel (and could you expect anything different of the man who gave us the legendary populist musical The Cradle Will Rock?) he picks out some fantastically funny and patter quick songs for Juno and a quartet of her neighbors (Caron Buinis, Anne Sheridan Smith, Kelli Harrington and Kathleen Gibson) and lovely Irish drinking tunes for the male ensemble.


The company undeniably has the vocal ability to give wing to Blitzstein’s notes and life to O’casey and Stein’s Irishisms but unfortunately have yet to master the art of singing clearly in an accent: they can make themselves understood, or they keep the brogue in both song and speech, but most cannot do it simultaneously. All except Grandy, who’s supple voice swells like a gust of wind from the sea-cliffs edge or wails like an air-raid siren. She can both make herself understood in our ears and hearts and keep her lilt a-tilting with wit, an absolute delight to us. Much less intelligible but just as humorous Rains struts about just “loik the paycock” everyone alludes to, and though Kohane spends the majority of his action on his cot in our midst, mouthing the old folksongs and old arguments, when he comes down the stairs, he makes an impression.


Despite its sadly unimpressive hatching (16 performances on Broadway, and few revivals anywhere) Juno shows itself a fair lick of the 1960 Book Musical, a scrappy younger sibling to Fiddler on the Roof (and My Fair Lady, for good measure). It careens like an express train, thundering past some important stations at times, but never flagging as it pulls along to its own triumphantly sad music. As the second act progressed with Grandy at the wheel, I found that Juno outstripped Fiddler’s Shadow (though carrying the tried and true values of it safe and snug within its carriages) and became its own story, quaint, tragi-comedic and undoubtedly Irish.

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