TimeLine Theatre doesn't leap immediately to mind when you think "musical." The Chicago company specializes in plays inspired by history that resonate with current social and political issues and has produced only two musicals over its 17-year history. The first was 2006's "Fiorello!" about famed New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The second is its current show, "Juno," by composer/lyricist Marc Blitzstein and writer Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof").
An obscure musical inspired by Irish playwright Sean O'Casey's 1924 drama "Juno and the Paycock." "Juno" was a flop, closing within two weeks of its 1959 Broadway opening and never revived.
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"Juno"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, (773) 281-8463 or timelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through July 27. Also, 7:30 p.m. June 24. No 2 p.m. performance June 29
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes with intermission
Parking: Metered street parking; paid lots nearby
Rating: For middle school audiences and older; some violence, adult subject matter
TimeLine's hugely entertaining, wonderfully executed production -- Chicago's first -- makes one wonder why.
Granted, the subject -- the struggles of an impoverished Irish family during the Irish Civil War -- is grim. And you won't leave the theater humming Blitzstein's Irish-seasoned tunes. His inventive, multifaceted score yielded no standards, but it is lovely. The characters are well-crafted, and Stein's unvarnished book expertly balances both the comic and tragic elements of this survival tale.
The time is 1921. The place is a Dublin tenement, home to the nearly destitute Boyle family headed by "Captain" Jack, a right jolly lout played by the charismatic Ron Rains. Perpetually unemployed, this patriarch "paycock" ("peacock" in the Irish vernacular), spends his days at Foley's Pub downing pints with his equally indolent pal Joxer, played with affable self-interest by James Houton.
Also out of work is son Johnny, played by the moody, conflicted Jonny Stein whose haunting dance number is among the show's most compelling moments. Having lost his arm during Ireland's struggle for independence, Johnny spends his days alone and tormented. Trade unionist daughter Mary Boyle (Emily Glick, a fresh-faced newcomer with a clarion voice) is a striking factory worker and budding activist yearning for a better life. She's pursued by the earnest union rep Jerry, winningly played by the glorious tenor Jordan Brown, whose "One Kind Word" is a delight.
Last but not least there's Juno, the long-suffering matriarch expertly played by Broadway veteran Marya Grandy (a force to be reckoned with) in her second Chicago-area performance (she appeared last year in Marriott Theatre's "9 to 5"). Grandy's detailed acting is second only to her rich, resonant singing beautifully showcased in the 11 o'clock number, a wrenching lament titled "Where?"
The solution to the family's financial woes comes in the guise of solicitor Charlie Bentham (Peter Oyloe, who gives nothing away). He informs the family that a cousin has left them a large inheritance. Juno and Jack embark on a spending spree, while Mary falls for and pursues romance with Charlie.
The neighbors rejoice at the Boyles' good fortune, which turns out to be fleeting.
In director Nick Bowling's savvy, fluidly staged production, the audience enters through Foley's Pub, past conductor/pianist Elizabeth Doran's fine quintet. They surround on three sides John Culbert's immersive set, which extends the playing space into the audience, where some theatergoers find themselves sitting next to a sleeping Johnny.
Bowling's first-rate ensemble, many of them new to TimeLine, made me laugh out loud. Deftly expressing the bleak humor that underscores the show, they also convincingly convey the affection and resolve -- and they do it without a hint of self pity.
As for their singing, the grand voices that make up this ensemble are on par with any found on the Drury Lane, Marriott or Paramount theater stages. That goes for the chorus, nicely showcased in "Darlin' Man," an ode to Captain Jack from his drinking buddies, and "Poor Thing," a clever tune in which the women commiserate over Juno's fate and their own.
Kudos to music directors Doug Peck and Doran for helping to make TimeLine's second musical foray such a success.
And while I don't expect TimeLine to challenge the Chicago area's musical theater titans anytime soon, it's nice to know they could.