Teal Wicks (right) stars as the title character — with bride and groom Jane Bruce and Eric William Morris as frontier friends — as “The Ballad of Little Jo” enters its final week of performances at Two River Theater. (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
It’s always a pleasure to see the physical space and human resources of Two River Theater Company employed to their full potential, and with the current mainstage musical The Ballad of Little Jo, TRTC artistic director John Dias and company have crowned their 2016-2017 season with a polished production that packs something of a homegrown pedigree; that doesn’t skimp on the quality or quantity of assembled talent — and that speaks to the American soul in all of its conflicted, enterprising, ambitious, messy and often melancholy glory.
Co-written by, developed and directed here by Dias — and adapted from a 1993 film of the same name — the show that made its formal debut some 17 years ago at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre has traced a journey to the Red Bank stage almost as long as that of the real-life 19th century woman whose story (very loosely) inspired it. It’s a journey that enters its final stretch for the time being, as the production wraps its limited engagement with eight more performances, today through Sunday, June 25.
Starring as Josephine Monaghan — an unwed mother, self-exiled from her Bostonian family and infant son, whose encounters with the cruelties of the Western frontier compel her to make a new life for herself as a man — is Teal Wicks, a Broadway veteran of Finding Neverland, Jekyll & Hyde, and a high-profile turn as Elphaba in Wicked. Reinvented as “Jo,” sporting a self-inflicted facial scar and a burning ambition to make good for her child, she stumbles into a rough-hewn Idaho mining community; making friends — and in the process, a problematic triangle — with saloonkeep Sara (Jane Bruce) and hardscrabble silver miner Jordan (Eric William Morris, of Two River’s Be More Chill).
Further complicating the delicate balance is the appearance of Tin Man Wong (Daniel K. Isaac), a young Chinese wanderer who comes to Silver City on a mysterious personal mission — and whose arrival is as much a calming influence on Jo’s domestic front, as it is a potential match in the powderkeg of an already tense town.
A generous score of songs by ex-NFL defensive tackle turned Grammy winner composer Mike Reid with lyricist Sarah Schlesinger — the same team whose collaborations with Two River included A Wind in the Willows Christmas and In This House — gives the principals room to shine, as on Jo’s solo “Everything That Touched Her,” Jordan’s swaggering “Whatcha Gonna Do?” and Sara’s haunting Americana “Troubled Heart.”
Doubling up for the most part in supporting roles, the other cast members (particularly Barbara Tirrell as a sympathetic frontier storekeeper) skillfully evoke everything from fellow travelers and menacing soldiers, to good neighbors turned angry mob members. The company also gets its chance to deliver the musical goods, with a sardonic toast “To Winter” and other rousing ensemble numbers.
Though it detours dramatically from the history of the actual Joe Monaghan (Two River has included a nicely done tribute to the remarkable rancher in its program book), The Ballad of Little Jo covers a lot of territory in its relatively lengthy running time (approximately two and a half hours, plus intermission) — making stagecoach stops along the way at the crossroads of identity, community, privacy and personal choice.
Tickets ($20 – $70) and full schedule details can be obtained via the Two River website, or by calling the box office at (732)345-1400. Then keep it tuned to redbankgreen for more summertime schedulings at Two River Theater, including the imminent return of the Summer Jazz Cafe series.