Addison — What’s a girl to do—when being female is just about the most dangerous choice you can make?
WaterTower Theatre’s strongly sung and acted The Ballad of Little Jo tells the story of a well-off young Boston woman of the late 1800s, who has a baby without a husband and runs West to find a new beginning for herself and the son she’s left behind. Instead, the realities of the wide-open frontier lead Josephine Monaghan (Laura Lyman Payne) to scar her face, cut her hair, and live for nearly 20 years as “Jo”—just one of the guys working his claim in the silver territory of Idaho.
Little Jo, with music by Grammy-winning composer Mike Reid and lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger, current chair of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (both co-wrote the script with John Dias), premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2000. A second full production opened in 2017 at Two River Theatre in New Jersey, and seems to have created a new buzz about the piece.
The musical is based on director Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 indie film of the same name—though some major plot points differ. And for both movie and musical, the idea rose from many true-life histories of women disguised as men in the Old West.
It’s an edgy, eye-opening story that swings from dark to folksy and back again. And if its harsh look at women’s lives and limits feels curiously of the moment (#MeToo, Jo), there’s also a hint of classic stage conundrums that hark back to Shakespeare (girls in love with guys disguised as girls—always fun) and to gender/identity questions the human race never quite seems to get answered.
Little Jo is a showcase for Reid’s rousing, rhythmic melodies: back-country tunes, work chants, wistful love songs, passionate anthems. They bring this strange story to life. Music director Vonda K. Bowling—conducting from the piano with a group of six talented musicians—is a vibrant presence onstage. Dance and movement pick up where the music leaves off, with folksy dance melodies (“To Winter”) or the rhythm of miners’ picks on stone in “Hi-Lo-Hi.” And Schlesinger’s lyrics never let story and plot just sit there—songs always push the story forward.
The 11 members of the ensemble (everyone but Jo) are simply referred to as “Player 1, Player 2, etc.”—but we quickly come to recognize the characters they portray: sister, miner, preacher, friend. The actors serve as spot narrators, stepping out of their roles to fill out a plot point or mark changes in time and place. The actors dance with loose, natural energy to Joshua L. Peugh’s choreography, and both group and solo singing are strong. The ensemble includes (in numerical order) Gregory Lush, Kathryn Taylor Rose, Jeremy Davis, Sarah Caldwell, Marti Etheridge, Sadat Hossain, Kyle Igneczi, Sam Swenson, Oscar Seung, Jonathan Bragg, and Amber Marie Flores.
As Josephine/Jo, Payne does very well in a vocally demanding role, though her abilities as a “belter” are at times pushed to the limit. She is, of course, most engaging as the young and hopeful girl traveling West. Once Jo becomes “himself,” there is less for us to see and work with. Jo is something of a blank, a fellow keeping a very low profile. After our first glimpse of this vital, determined girl, it’s actually hard (perhaps intentionally) for us to watch the rest—the hidden, closed-in Jo she becomes—and we are glad when glimpses of Josephine and her thinking begin to emerge at last.
Jonathan Bragg and Amber Marie Flores (“Whatcha Gonna Do,” “After You,” “When You Love Someone”) are standouts in the ensemble as Jo’s best friends Jordan and Sara, whose turbulent courtship and marriage are well and truly tangled with Jo’s presence in their lives. Seung is gentle and appealing as “Tin Man” Wong, a young Chinese man under suspicion by the community (he isn’t, in fact, there to “take our jobs”) whose almost feminine sensitivity to Jo’s situation contrasts nicely with her now-ingrained masculine “loner” persona. Some men like to keep house; some women like to be ranchers and miners.
Amy Pedigo-Otto’s costumes are both authentic and varied—an interesting array of bonnets, bowler hats, trimmed dresses, and men’s work and “Sunday” gear. Clare Floyd DeVries fills the considerable space and height with a wood-plank construction that serves as town, mining camp, saloon and even the great outdoors. Multiple levels make an upper space for Jo’s solitary cabin, and ranks of windows give us an impression of mountains all around, swooping down to the tin roofs of Silver City.
Lighting designer Aaron Johansen lights those windows in red—to startling effect—at a desperate moment in the story. Props designer Ryan Matthieu Smith fleshes out Jo’s new world with everything from bar mugs to pistols to sticks that become both miner’s picks and musical instruments of a kind. Sound designer Mark Howard produces neat effects when needed (picks and anvil strikes come from drummer Jay Majernik) and keeps both music and dialogue crystal-clear. And director Ervi brought in Mitchell Stephens (The Great Distance Home) as the show’s fight and intimacy choreographer, a smart choice for a show full of both.
Little Jo, to speak outside the charmed circle of the show itself, serves as a fitting end note for a brief era of WaterTower’s theatrical existence. It’s the last show on the Terry Martin Main Stage picked by former artistic director Joanie Schultz, and (for now, at least) the last to be directed by WTT associate artistic director Kelsey Leigh Ervi (The Great Distance Home, Everything is Wonderful), who is leaving for grad school.
A final glimpse of Schultz’ vision for the company is onstage in the company’s smaller black-box space: Unveiled, a look at Muslim women and their lives from playwright Rohina Malik, who also performs. (The one-woman show is running in the Karol Omlor Studio Theatre, and tickets to Little Jo may be used to purchase discounted tickets for Unveiled.)
The Ballad of Little Jo continues the unusual and engaging artistic vision of WTT’s most recent seasons. It assembles a talented and diverse cast; looks honestly at issues of gender, race, and sexual politics; and deconstructs long-held illusions (in this case, about the fun and feisty “Old West”). WTT’s productions of Hit the Wall, Bread, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Distance Home, Hand to God, and Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue pushed envelopes (and some hot buttons), and brought the company to national notice as an innovative and adventurous organization.
One hopes the company, now under the direction of producing artistic director Shane Peterman (formerly of Lyric Stage) will find a middle ground for WTT’s enthusiastic audiences—long-timers and newcomers alike—and become an equal-opportunity home for both fascinating new work and vibrant revivals of classic plays and popular musicals.