NEW YORK (AP) _ Score one for overreaching ambition.
It probably was a foolhardy idea to turn Sean O'Casey's bleak Irish masterpiece, "Juno and the Paycock," into a big Broadway musical, but composer Marc Blitzstein and librettist Joseph Stein made a game try in 1959 — and met with little success. Retitled, "Juno," the production lasted two weeks at the Winter Garden Theatre no less, currently the home of "Mamma Mia!"
Still, it's to City Center's credit that its "Encores!" concert series celebrating old musicals has resurrected this problematic show in an abbreviated adaptation by David Ives that is tantalizing, primarily for showcasing Blitzstein's rich, atmospheric score that practically oozes Irishness.
O'Casey's tragic tale is awash in memorable characters: the hardworking, practical Juno; her ne'er-do-well husband, Captain Jack Boyle; their unfulfilled daughter Mary; and troubled son, Johnny. And Blitzstein has provided each with music that gives striking definition to who they are.
One of the reasons the original production apparently faltered was because its stars, Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas, were not exactly singers. In this staging, they are, particularly Victoria Clark, who plays Juno.
Clark brings an emotional and musical heft to the unhappy woman's songs. Not as successful is Conrad John Schuck, whose stereotypical Captain Boyle is saddled with Blitzstein's more obvious comedy numbers, mostly in duets with his sidekick, Joxer, portrayed by Dermot Crowley.
Musically, the best moments are left to the show's love interests. Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary sweetly handles the show's best-known song, "I Wish It So," surely one of the most heartfelt songs of longing in the musical-theater canon. Close behind is the equally emotional "One Kind Word," sung by Michael Arden as her disappointed suitor.
It takes nerve to open a musical with a killing, which is what happens in "Juno," set in 1921 as the Irish battled the British during the War of Independence. Yet director Garry Hynes stages the murder quite dramatically. And it's this killing that haunts Johnny, played by with remarkable intensity by Tyler Hanes.
Johnny is primarily a dance role — the choreography for the original was by the legendary Agnes de Mille. Here, the dance numbers are by Warren Carlyle who has created a striking ballet for "The Ballad of Johnny Boyle," done to some of Blitzstein's most evocative music.
Because of its melodramatic, grim plot, "Juno" probably would work better as an opera than as a musical theater piece. Much of the story revolves around an anticipated inheritance that Captain Boyle is expecting from a relative. Of course, he spends the money before he actually gets it — with disastrous results. It could be the stuff of grand opera.
"Juno" runs through March 30. Next up for "Encores!" is a total change of pace: the 1971 version of the frothy 1920s musical "No, No, Nanette," featuring a cast that includes Sandy Duncan and Rosie O'Donnell. The dates are May 8-11.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.