Timeline Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of JUNO.
This is only the second musical produced in Timeline’s history. Knowing the critics shut down the 1959 Broadway premiere after 16 performances, JUNO is a gutsy choice for Timeline. The company is new to musicals. The musical is new to Chicago. The story, based on the play Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, is a somber premise to elicit singing and dancing. All these variables make for a deliberate leap of faith for Timeline. Where do they land?
Director Nick Bowling is no stranger to musicals. Associate Artistic Director Bowling has successfully orchestrated many musicals for other theatre companies. In his own theatre, he stages JUNO for some Irish homespun goodness. The entire theatre is wallpapered. Scenic Designer John Culbert keeps the audience in the play by strategically perching a bedroom in an aisle or behind a row of chairs. A park bench and a stool mingle right in with theatre seats. From my position, I look directly into Foley’s pub. The bar spills out into the theatre foyer and is where the 5 piece band is located. With their limited musical experience, the Timeline sound system was surprisingly adept.
The book by Joseph Stein is uneven. He doesn’t quite marry the drama to the comedy like in his wildly successful “Fiddler on the Roof.” The political strife hoovers over the neighborhood. That duress is palpable. Yet, the occasional pursuit of the one armed man is awkward. And that storyline leads to an abrupt finale. The last ten minutes of the show is an unsatisfying quickie. I was startled that we had reached the dramatic conclusion.
Stein does a better job with the comedy. The dialogue is peppered with witticism. The commanding Marya Grandy (Juno) delivers zinger after zinger. And Lyricist Marc Blitzstein provides plenty of tunes crackling with humor. The guys get the drinking diddie, “Daarlin’ Man.” The gals get the gossip-driven, “Poor Thing.” And Grandy and Ron Rains (Jack) dazzle with two versions of the duet, “Old Sayin’s.” Grandy and Rains‘ relationship is at the crux of the show. “Old Sayin’s” perfectly showcases the spite and the sweetness of their union. Since Rains plays such a likable drunk, his shortcomings are felt by all. The ongoing heartbreak ripples from Grandy and sweeps across the theatre.
What works best in this show is the talented ensemble. Under Bowling’s direction, they form a strong and authentic community. The intermittent playfulness lives next to the sobering reality. The first act ends with an uplifting “On a Day like This.” Choreographer Katie Spellman creates an Irish flash mob. The jigging and twirling take over the street. It’s good craic. Later, Spellman creates a poignant dream sequence for Johnny (performed by Johnny Stein). Spellman blends marching and ballet in this haunting reflection. Johnny Stein, also serving as dance captain, expertly leads the spectacle with one hand tied behind his back. Scarves are used to disguise the enemy verses neighbor in this unforgettable imagery.
With my fondness for all things Irish, I thoroughly enjoyed JUNO. Despite the uneven book, the story was engaging. Grandy plays the tough matriarch perfectly. Her ongoing transformation is riveting. Her final solo, “Where?”, reeks of desperation and determination. It’s unforgettable.
Where did Timeline land in their leap of faith? They transport us confidently to 1920s Dublin where the civil wars were fought on the streets and in the homes. JUNO is an Irish history lesson served with a pint of honesty and ongoing shots of humor.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes includes an intermission
At Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
Based on the play Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey
Book by Joseph Stein
Music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein
Directed by Nick Bowling
Music direction by Doug Peck and Elizabeth Doran
Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm
Sundays at 2pm
Thru July 27th
Buy Tickets at www.timelinetheatre.com
Photo by Lara Goetsch