There’s nothing like watching a dysfunctional family in crisis to put one’s own problems into perspective. The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater lures the audience into a world of family secrets in their new musical “Unexpected Joy.”
This world-premiere musical brings together some acclaimed talents, and the net result is impressive. The book and lyrics are by Tony Award-nominated playwright Bill Russell (“Side Show”) and Janet Hood composed the inspiring score. Director Lynne Taylor-Corbett has been nominated for Tony Awards for “Swing,” and three of the four cast members are Broadway veterans.
“Unexpected Joy” is about the coming together of three generations of strong women from a family that hasn’t experienced true joy together for decades. Even though they have differing opinions on almost everything, as singers they share the gift of music and bond through song.
Set in the present day on Cape Cod, the play includes Sally Mayes as the anything-goes hippie grandmother Joy. The show opens with her rehearsing for a memorial service for her music and life partner a year after his death. Her guest list includes her very conservative daughter Rachel, formerly named Rainbow, and her granddaughter, Tamara, who is spreading her wings and reluctantly heading to a Christian college. One guest who is a complete surprise to Rachel is Lou, a self-described “lesbian warrior.” Joy hasn’t told her family she and Lou are getting married.
Mayes has been seen on and off-Broadway and in national tours. She was nominated for a Tony for the revival of “She Loves Me.” As the aging professional singer, Mayes naturally radiates an exuberant energy as she darts about the stage avoiding the truth.
Broadway actress Michelle Duffy (“Leap of Faith”) portrays the sanctimonious Rachel with a well-polished Oklahoma drawl, which contrasts nicely with Mayes’ quick banter. As the wife of a well-known televangelist and singer on the broadcast, Rachel is on the look-out for anything unseemly. She believes gay people are sinners, and doesn’t keep her opinions to herself. Duffy embodies Rachel’s conservative beliefs in her perfectly poised and unflustered manner.
Charity Farrell is the youngest actress in the talented pool, and she plays the granddaughter Tamara. Farrell nicely balances Tamara’s natural enthusiasm, which she shares with her grandmother, through she is far more reserved with her religiously conservative mother. Ultimately, her disdain erupts in defiance.
Lacretta recently made her Broadway debut in “Disaster!” As Lou, Lacretta throws fuel on the fire of mounting family tensions. Lou is surprised Rachel doesn’t know she is engaged to Joy. Lacretta brings much hilarity to this awkward situation. Lou keeps her cards close to her chest while trying to figure out what Rachel knows. Lou refuses to apologize to anyone for who she is, and boldly calls Rachel a bigot.
With musical direction and piano accompaniment by Gillian Berkowitz, the music’s diversity and upsurging energy is an unexpected treat. The vocal range and musical abilities of the whole cast is noteworthy, with each easily adapting to the various musical styles, including folk, gospel and rock. The expert band consists of Rod McCaulley on bass, Rikki Bates on drums and Jim Robitaille as lead guitar.
Christopher Ostrom’s scenic and lighting design capture the limitlessness of the sea with beautifully dyed screens of blue and green that serve as the background for Joy’s minimalist home. Tyler Kinney’s flowing clothing choices for Joy are a contemporized ode to the '60s fringe.
Through love, patience, honesty, and music, the fabulous “Unexpected Joy” demonstrates how the most radically different people can find a small piece of “common ground” on which to build a connective bridge toward understanding.
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Through Aug. 20
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428