Review: Unexpected Joy by Ground Floor Theatre
by David Glen Robinson
Musical theatre is back in Austin. The Ground Floor Theatre (GFT) production of Unexpected Joy reestablished the place as a venue for well-produced musical theatre in Austin. In the hands of director Lisa Scheps and the design and production team at GFT, the musical with book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Janet Hood, gave us an evening of entertainment and thoughtfulness that could and should be seen everywhere in our nation. It also gave the pandemic its final stomping into the ground (but Covid protocols remained in place).
There is no musical theatre without exquisite cast voices to sing the songs, and director Scheps ensured her success from the moment of auditions. The cast of four is comprised of the vastly experienced Cathie Sheridan as Joy, Amber Quick as her grown daughter Rachel, Michelle Alexander as Joy’s lesbian lover Lou, and the fabulously talented Caroline Mullins, an honest-to-God teenager playing and singing as a teenager—Tamara, Joy’s granddaughter, Rachel’s daughter. The cast is beautifully matched and clearly collegial. Their songs were well timed, powerful and memorable.
The singers fronted an impressive small instrumental ensemble led by Jennifer Peacock on piano. Mandy Rowden was on guitar, Kinseli Baricuatro on bass, and Melodie Zapata handled the percussion.
The action of the play is the time-honored homecoming story. Seventies Boomer/hippy Joy very recently lost the partner with whom she lived her adult life and produced Rachel, but they never married. Conflict starts immediately, or it wouldn’t be musical theatre: after a lifetime of drink, smokables, and psychedelics, Joy spaces out and forgets to pick up her daughter and granddaughter at the airport. Tension starts high and launches higher. The family is one of singers—rock, of course—but now Rachel sings Christian songs on TV for her tele-evangelist husband, the father of Tamara. The characters stake out their positions on many social and cultural issues. Joy has a difficult time telling Rachel and Tamara of her impending nuptials to her African-American lesbian lover Lou, but that was certainly not the central conflict in this dense play.
The production seemed a snapshot of 2015, when the Supreme Court confirmed the validity of gay marriages. While covering the waterfront of social issues in our country, Unexpected Joy (2016) highlighted the clash of generational values. The irony was evident when the story juxtaposed a figure from the Seventies who derided marriage as “just a piece of paper” with a gay character who clearly found the marriage license a hard-won doorway to respectability and legally recognized rights. The play’s recognition was insightful.
In most works of art addressing wide ranges of social issues there are blind spots, and the many positions of advocacy in Unexpected Joy made its blind spots obvious and glaring. The negative characters (from playwright Russell’s perspective) lived in Oklahoma, and the state became Russell’s punching bag for all things backward. The term “Oklahoma” became its own joke line in the play. Despite the Oklahoma connection, the play did not address the social and cultural issues surrounding Native American rights. Note, too, that the religious right characters comprise a thinly disguised picture of Joel Osteen and his wife Victoria, working their TV evangelism out of Lakewood Church in Houston. Remember the outrageous televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who raged up and down in Louisiana until his downfall in the late 1980's? In this topical area of regional stereotyping, Unexpected Joy lost its otherwise laudable even-handed approach to the vexing mass problems of our generation.
The designers and production staff made it all work, starting with Lisa Scheps’ impeccable direction, placing everyone where they needed to be, as if by magic. The musical direction by Kelsey Kimble was impressive, as were the scenic design by Gary Thornsberry (where did he procure all those rugs and hanging fabrics?) and properties design by Patti Neff-Tiven. The interior of Joy’s home flew right out of 1973. Pam Friday’s costume design likewise captured the period in detail, particularly Joy’s wide denim bellbottoms.
All the design elements supported the musical core of the production, and the songs and music brought all the elements together. Ground Floor Theatre has succeeded beautifully and entertainingly with its production of Unexpected Joy. Expect more award nominations and wins for GFT.
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell, Music by Janet Hood
Produced by Ground Floor Theatre
December 3 to 19, 2021
Ground Floor Theatre, East Austin
December 02 - December 19, 2021
979 Springdale Rd
Austin, TX, 78702
Unexpected Joy | December 2–19, 2021
Performances are Thursday through Saturday nights at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 5:00 PM. The “First Friday” performance on December 3 includes a reception. One Wednesday industry performance on December 8 at 8:00 PM.
Talkbacks with community partners will be held after certain performances with dates and partners to be announced shortly.
Performances run at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale Road, Austin, TX at the corner of Springdale and Airport.
Ground Floor Theatre believes in “theatre for everyone,” regardless of ability to pay, so tickets are always “Pay What You Can”. Suggested ticket prices are $25 for general admission and $40 for VIP. VIP seating includes a reserved seat, a glass of bubbly and the assurance of helping GFT keep the “Pay What You Can” policy. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at groundfloortheatre.org/joy.
Covid 19 Mitigation
GFT reassess this on a weekly basis and changes based on CDC and City of Austin guidance.
Current as of Oct 2021: GFT will have strict Covid 19 protocols in place, including requiring proof of vaccination or recent negative Covid 19 test, requiring masks for ALL patrons in the theatre except while ACTIVELY eating or drinking, limited socially distanced seating, HEPA filtration, and touchless check-in and ticketing.