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Out in the Northwest & Up at the North Pole:
The Ballad of Little Jo & Kris Kringle
Reviews by Rob Lester

Here are scores of two musicals with quite different styles and sensibilities, each story concerning a protagonist whose determined goal necessitates travel far from home near America's East coast. In the serious-minded but stirring The Ballad of Little Jo, the 19-year-old title character leaves Boston to find work, landing in Idaho with many a challenge to come. In the lighter, brighter Kris Kringle, the young title character—a toymaker—leaves New York for a dream job among toys at the North Pole with Santa Claus and company.

THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO
2017 TWO RIVER THEATER (N.J.) CAST

The Musical Company

While it often feels fresh and invigorating with its own original energy, at times The Ballad of Little Jo may remind musical theatre mavens of other shows. The fiercely independent and undaunted heroine might recall the same-named nonconformist teenager in Little Women; Little Jo, like Jo March, is introduced to us in her family's Massachusetts home in the latter part of the 1800s. A big rousing ensemble song celebrating statehood for Idaho ("Independence!") recalls the raison d'etre of the robust title number of Oklahoma!. Jo finds work mining for silver, suggesting the musical theatre ancestors of plots involving quests for gold (Paint Your Wagon, Finian's Rainbow). An angry mob with torches brings up a chilling moment in Brigadoon. But, most of all, the gender issues with Jo's decision to pass herself off as a man—and a love triangle with an established couple leading to frustrations and confusion for all three—has similarities to the story of yeshiva student Yentl, which became a movie musical.

Teal Wicks as Jo(e) gives a rich, committed performance, demonstrating a variety of vocal colors and a roller coaster of emotions as she faces challenges. While it stretches credulity to imagine that her singing voice would pass as a man's, much of her song spots involve soliloquy situations (and a few included moments of dialogue evidence her more successfully lowering her pitch in a gruffer, muttering manner). Some plot points also make us wonder about logic or motivations, but this is not pure fiction. The tale is based on the story of a real-life woman who successfully kept her female gender a secret, like the jazz musician called Billy Tipton, portrayed recently in a nightclub-style bio-musical by Nellie McKay.

Eric William Morris and Jane Bruce make strong impressions as a couple not quite equally matched in their ardor; among these two and Jo there are attractions not acknowledged allowed because of the title character's professed/assumed gender, as in the aforementioned Yentl. A very competent ensemble sings in groupings and in solos as characters we don't know much about as individuals from the lyrics, but the variety of voices and their blend are effective.

Specifics have been changed from both the actual history—and the same-titled movie it inspired—including her gender only being discovered after her death. The "reveal" is more dramatic if the character is alive and we are in on others' surprised reaction. But the musical has much more going for it than playing the gender card and the tension of if or when the truth will come out. First and foremost, it has an eclectic score that can be briskly entertaining, catchy, moving, and sweeping—and occasionally poetic. Subjects covered also include prejudice, morality, unrequited love, community, and loneliness. Songs are satisfyingly diverting and flow or build with ease; if they fail to take full wings to soar or have more impact, it is because they present characters commenting, rather than serving to coming to a new realization or decision in the way theatre songs can.

Nevertheless, the characters are sympathetic and they and the songs they deliver demand attention. Mike Reid's melodies meld musical theatre with his roots in country and folk, with an oddly Irish tang. We get a square dance, ballads, strong songs of decisiveness and longing, and some wistfulness. "When You Love Someone" feels like an old-school "take-home tune" that advocates for the unselfish power of love as a force. (If only it didn't replace the singular "someone" incorrectly with "them," a plural pronoun that is grating when used as a non-gender-specific singular pronoun). Sarah Schlesinger's lyrics let characters be observant and openly emotional or coy with mostly artful and unforced rhymes and turns of phrase. A fondness for similes makes for some surprising but not unwelcome dashes of elegance in otherwise rough-hewn and plainspoken language. The songwriters collaborated with director John Dias on the book.

Many songs are real keepers, while a few are more functional as musicalized plot turns or add a little color, like a card game with banter. "Listen to the Rain," a piece of eye-opening advice, is a lovely moment sung by Daniel K. Isaac. "Hand in the River," which bookends the show, is arresting.

Having gone through years of development, nurtured at New Jersey's Two River Theater and its artistic staff, The Ballad of Little Jo is much more than a little intriguing.

KRIS KRINGLE: THE MUSICAL
STUDIO CAST

Yellow Sound Label
CD format available at BroadwayRecords.com

It's never too early to start thinking about Christmas when there are delightful new-ish songs about it being released at any time of year. This early-bird candidate, Kris Kringle: The Musical, flies in following its January studio cast recording session, after a here-today/gone tomorrow live November performance for a day at The Town Hall in Manhattan with some of the main players returning for the permanent record. Other audiences, such as Ohio in 2015 and attendees at the 2010 Book Expo have have had a head-start in seeing the jolly joys of this project.

And, of course, a sooner-the-better issue makes sense especially for theatre companies who might be doing their own "Christmas shopping" for family musicals to mount later in the year, as they'd be wise to check this one out. It's got a lot going for it. And it's a pick-me-up now for for those of us calendar-blind music fans who unashamedly pull out holiday music as a reminder of holiday cheer at random times of the year, whether it be the old chestnuts or the things we bought last December and never got around to actually listening to because we were busy or got sick of the ubiquitous mall-and-all musical bombardment. As for you Scrooge types, you can ease your way in by commiserating with the early (and reprised) entertainingly snarky number "What Is So Merry 'Bout Christmas?"! The head curmudgeon in this story has a financial stake in his rejection of the tradition and Santa giving out free gifts: he runs a profit-making toy company and wants people to buy as many toys as possible. The character, Roy G. Reedy (get it? G+reedy) is played by Erick Devine, who sings it first, with grumbling Grinch-like relish, more buffoon-like than scary. Early in the plot, he tries to thwart the Manhattan Thanksgiving Day Parade where Santa Claus traditionally makes an appearance to stir up spirit.

Sure, there may be more pep and sugar-coated sunshine beaming through the North Pole snow than those allergic to holiday fluffy family fare may care to dig into. It is often uber-gleeful, but some lovely old-school musical theatre ballads and carpe diem numbers provide balance. Perhaps the global warming of the pole's ice caps will warm some typically hardened hearts. Maria Campia wrote the book, original story and some of the lyrics—how can you argue a taste for tinsel with a woman born on Christmas Day? And a composer-lyricist named Angelo Natalie, whose names have origins in the words meaning "angel," and "born on Christmas," too? He shares songwriting duties with Tim Janis. Their work is bouncy and bright and not condescending. The orchestra on the recording is full of zip and fizz. You may need to call upon your inner child and return to a time of wonder and whimsy, but those are nice places to be.

Ideally cast in the title role of enthusiastic toy inventor Kris, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who played the title role also at The Town Hall, does so for the studio cast recording. His bright voice and positive energy are refreshingly uncloying embodying the hero who seeks toy jobs with Reedy (who had fired him) and, setting the highest goal, at the North Pole with Santa himself. Through a series of hidden identities and secret family histories, conflicting goals and trickery, the plot thickens—thicker than rich Christmas pudding—while Kris learns how to succeed in toy business with really trying, no matter the discouragements and a disaster he unwittingly sets into motion as the dupe of an evil scheme. Keenan-Bolger's charm works wonders, employing gentle humor, genuine sweetness, and wistfulness, waxing and waning confidence, and centers the production around him. His big songs like, "Beautiful," in which he is inspired by visions of toys in the stars in the night sky and fond memories of the late grandmother who encouraged him, are highlights.

Still a presence, Grandma is sung here by Broadway veteran Mary Stout, always a welcome and warm addition. Her big "you can do it" moment tells Kris that "there is always a 'Pathway Through'" to success. He wants to do her proud and is motivated. But a guy aiming to be an elf and undo a family curse needs all the help he can get. So, paging Mrs. Claus, played with solid buck-up belief, takes the lioness's share of ego-bolstering to see past obstacles and seeing someone's best self, including her husband's ("Something Wonderful in You," a sugar-coated junior cousin perhaps to the number from The King and I that shares its first two words). With creamy-voiced support, committed Kim Crosby as Mrs. C. takes the reins (of the situations, not the sleigh's reindeer pack) to turn things around for people to work and situations to work out.

Naturally, the man in the red suit has a few points to make and his own family drama to reconcile, with a little help. Also in in the picture are elves, apprentice elves (some played by kids), a head of their department who musically is more Elvis than of elves, with his Presley-like 1950s rockin' R&B ode to filling his elfin "Green Suede Shoes." Nick Varricchio makes it entertaining and zingy without going way over the top.

Nikki Renée Daniels plays a potential love interest or one more obstacle for wide-eyed Kris; they bond over having both, at age ten, lost beloved female family members. For Daniels' character (surname Noel), it was her mom who still guides her in the powerfully sung expression of ongoing connection, "My North Star." It is probably not much of a spoiler alert to say that their Christmas and toys and elves are all back on track eventually and "Forgiveness" as a song title on the list should give a hint of the good guys winning and others seeing the light that is as bright as that North Star.

And hope, again, springs eternal, even when springtime may be the time you're introduced to this adorable score. Merry Christmas in advance!





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