Wednesday, October 11, 2023

From the Desk of Jim R Take 2, Column 428, A Review: "Joan Joyce!" (Seven Angels Theatre)

By James V. Ruocco

Let us remember softball great Joan Joyce.
Her pitching feats including striking out baseball great Ted Williams during a 1961 fundraiser game at Municipal Stadium in her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut before a crowd of 17,000 people were absolute legend as was her all-around athletic greatness in basketball, volleyball and golf. 

"Joan Joyce is the greatest player who ever played the game," said Johnny Stratton, her longtime coach with the Brakettes. "She dominated the sport for 24 years. And her name is the biggest name in softball forever. 
"But she was tops at everything - volleyball, basketball, bowling, shooting pool, ping pong, cars. It didn't make any difference. She'd always beat you." 

In "Joan Joyce!" a new musical tribute that takes its cue from Tony Renzoni's acclaimed 2019 bestseller "Connecticut Softball Legend Joan Joyce," the life and times of this softball phenom and true pioneer of women's sports, takes center stage at Seven Angels Theatre, time traveling back in time to when it all began, concluding with her death at the age of 81 on March 22, 2022.
It was first presented at Branford's Legacy Theatre, back in 2021, as part of the venue's "Family Series." The 2023 edition includes updated commentary and the addition of one new song.

Given the fact that Joyce was actually born in Waterbury, Connecticut (her birthday was August 18, 1940), Seven Angels Theatre is the ideal venue to showcase this musical homage to the much-honored athlete.
Its intimate, inviting working space not only complements the production itself but provides the theatergoer with a one-on-one. actor-audience connection not found in larger proscenium venues including New Haven's Shubert Theatre and the Bushnell in Hartford.
It makes all the difference in the world.

At Seven Angels Theatre, "Joan Joyce!" is cleverly shaped and handled with nostalgic assurance.
It's a grown-up sports story of the gentlest kind.
It's brave and honest.
It's informative and page-turning.
It's brightly detailed.
It's wistful and caring.
It's also grounded, accurate and inspired.

As written by Keely Baisden Knudsen and Lauren Salatto-Rosenay, "Joan Joyce!" is promoted and pitched with a full-on glide and spin that addresses the subject matter with sports-oriented definition, purpose and excitement. The on-stage banter between author Tony Renzoni and the older Joan Joyce contains dialogue, conversations, history, facts, anecdotes and memories that create a great hook to keep the theatergoer informed, educated and completely tuned in to the ongoing narrative. It is also practical, involving and full of feeling and discovery.
Pivotal to the story are the real-life movie screen projections of Joan Joyce, her family, her friends, her coaches, her sports evolution and news-making headlines, all of which have been expertly designed by Rosenay and synced seamlessly throughout the musical highlighting the long, illustrious career of the famous, acclaimed athlete. Rosenay's eye for detail, history and period accuracy is home run worthy.

Production wise, "Joan Joyce!" comes packaged with a keen, tuneful musical score created by Brad Ross (music) and Keely Baisden Knudsen/Lauren Salatto-Rosenay (lyrics). Additional songs contain music composed by Matthew Harrison, David Bell, Knudsen and Rosenay.
The musical numbers (in order of performance) are: "Joan Joyce (Show Us Who You Are)," "One Day," "We're Playing the Same Game," "Pitching My Game," "Slingshot," "Snap," "Who Knew," "Round and Round," "17 Puts," "Girls Gone Pro," "Your Biggest Fan," "Winter" and "Finale/The Game's Won."
An impressive score with just the right amount of thrust, vibe, impact and musicality, the music itself is natural, realistic, consistent, plot moving and inspirational. It complements the actual sports story, its renowned leading lady, its memories, its leaps and bounds, its expectations, its triumphs and its fact-based storytelling.
In short, everything is orchestrated and placed to ensure a play-by-play performance brought to life by a group of voices whose powerful sound is rendered with gleaming clarity, melody, pitch and velvety execution.
Musical director David Bell engineers all of the important emotions of the "Joan Joyce!" score, including its pleasurable outpourings, its joy, its anxiety, its hope, its anxiousness, its frustrations, its sports mentality and its musical theatre wonderment. There's refinement and color here, mixed with just the right instrumental balance, lyricism, texture and organic fluidity. It's a solid execution and build-up, nicely interpreted with the imagination and connection envisioned by the show's creators.

Staging "Joan Joyce!" director Keely Baisden Knudsen comes to the production with a depth of range, knowledge and experimentation that serves the production well. Her direction is clean and precise. It respects the boundaries and playing ground of what a musical can say and do. It is harmonized and executed with apt elevation that moves each song and scene to the next with tilt and swerve. It is also illuminated by everyday movement, enthusiasm and committed directorial choices that cement and accentuate the story, its ideas, its values and its athletic milieu.

Directorially, the power of "Joan Joyce!" lies in its ability to pay homage to the legend herself, which here, is conveyed with swinging emotions, nostalgic remembrance, a relaxed sports vibe and an informational format that Knudsen richly develops wholeheartedly. It's all precise and matter of fact, comfortably layered with centerpiece delivery, conversational accompaniment, smooth progression and warmhearted bouts of the athlete's accomplishments, struggles, familial ties and front-page headlines.

"Joan Joyce!" stars Keely Baisden Knudsen as Joan Joyce, Kiersten Bjork as Teenage Joan Joyce and Al Bundonis as Tony Renzoni. Mitchel Kawash, Jillian Millette, Rylee Maxwell and Dan Frye play a variety of roles throughout the two-act musical.
In the role of the teenaged Joan Joyce, Bjork is sensational. She is precise, crisp and clear in every scene, covering the part's nostalgic journey with power, dash, range and believability. Vocally, she sings with rich, complex tones and phrasing, supported by a controlled Broadway-like sound that gives full voice to her many musical numbers.
As the older Joan Joyce, Knudsen touches the heart with a sweet, sentimental and polished portrayal of Joyce, matched by great line delivery, presence and a natural, up close and personal impersonation. Here, as in Legacy Theatre's recent mounting of "The Musicals of Musicals," Knudsen is a vocal powerhouse of wonderful musicality that ignites sparks and is always thrilling to hear.
The supporting cast - Bundonis, Kawash, Maxwell, Millette and Fry - complement the proceedings with strong acting and vocal skills which enhance the storytelling, the musical and their role or roles in the "Joan Joyce!" sports narrative.

A remarkable life story told with vibrance, warmth and narrative gaze, "Joan Joyce! " is a confident, emotionally anchored musical that matches and celebrates the ambition and stamina of its subject matter.
It is spelled out with strong, newsworthy exuberance.  It is nostalgic. It is big hearted. It is relevant. It is energetic. It is genuine.
Director Keely Baisden Knudsen creates a tremendous, upbeat, sentimental entertainment filled with likeable, music, framed, capable dialogue and a host of standout performances by a very energetic cast who excel in every single role they create.
The real Joan Joyce would be ever so proud.

"Joan Joyce!" is being staged at Seven Angels Theatre (1 Plank Road, Waterbury, CT), now through October 22, 2023.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 757-4676.

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