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Book by Sarah Schlesinger, Mike Reid and John Dias
Music by Mike Reid
Lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger

WaterTower Theatre

Josephine “Jo” Monaghan - Laura Lyman Payne
Player 1 - Gregory Lush
Player 2 - Kathryn Taylor Rose
Player 3 - Jeremy Davis
Player 4 - Sarah Caldwell
Player 5 - Marti Etheridge
Player 6 - Sadat Hossain
Player 7 - Kyle Igneczi
Player 8 - Sam Swenson
Player 9 - Oscar Seung
Player 10 - Jonathan Bragg
Player 11 - Amber Marie Flores

Reeds - Mark Alewine
Bass - Sara Bollinger
Violin - Katrina Glaze
Cello - Jordan Jones
Guitar - Dennis Langevin
Percussion - Jay Majernik
Conductor / Piano - Vonda K. Bowling

Directed by - Kelsey Leigh Ervi
Music By - Vonda K. Bowling
Choreographed By - Joshua L. Peugh
Scenic Designer - Clare Floyd Devries
Costume Designer - Amy Pedigo-Otto
Lighting Designer - Aaron Johansen
Sound Designer - Mark Howard
Properties Designer - Ryan Matthieu Smith
Assistant Director - Nicole Johnson
Production Stage Manager - Hillary Collazo Abbott
Assistant Stage Manager - Jessica Updike
Fight & Intimacy Choreographer - Mitchell Stephens

Reviewed Performance: 6/10/2019

Reviewed by Travis McCallum, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

This is one of those shows that grows on you over time. With a slow wind up, I found myself disconnected early on. Part of it may have been the style of the show. There’s a reason why western shows are not as popular in our mainstream society. What worked for me is my appreciation for the Mid-West and pioneering on the road less traveled.

Set at the end of the 19th Century, “The Ballad of Little Jo” is a story about one woman’s life journey to find her purpose through a series of drastic experiences outside the confines of traditional gender roles.

I say drastic because many of choices our heroine protagonist Josephine “Jo” Monaghan (Laura Lyman Payne) make are on the spectrum of crazy. Leaving her few-month-old son, whom she claims is the most important thing in the world, and traveling to the other side of the country because she doesn’t ‘fit in’ is ludicrous.

At the naive age of 19, Josephine battles rape, hard labor, discrimination and more which age her into the hardened warrior we know as Jo. It is a tale of hardship even modern women in this era suffer through, and I am only able to glean a taste of their struggles.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of our main character, I am surprised how grounded the musical was and have the utmost respect for its historical representation. WaterTower’s supporting crew has created a masterpiece in such elegant set, prop, costume, lighting & sound design.

I would describe the mood and tone of “The Ballad of Little Jo” as a cross between western roots in country and age-old folk fairy tales. Musical numbers like “Muscle and Sweat” and “Independence” show us a glimpse of the working man, toiling in the view of nature with religious undertones.

In the softer ballads like “To Winter” & “Life” there is a sense of hope and anticipation for the future, as if everyone was drunk on wassail with dreamy eyes.

There are still those dark songs which fill us with pain, sorrow and sadness. “Everything That Touched Her” is a powerful solo from Josephine that pierces the air with her shrills of despair, transforming the woman to a man with resolute determination to never let another man touch him. To soothe Jo’s heart, perhaps my favorite number, “Listen to the Rain”, is a song of healing and a unique song in the show.

Tin Man (Oscar Seung) plays the role of a Chinese immigrant whose family was killed by a group of men in the racially charged city of Silver City. Just a boy, buried in the bloody bodies of father and brothers, Tin Man’s vengeance was quelled by the gushing waters from above.

This plot twists opens up another lens the show brilliantly executes on. Our social issue isn’t just one of gender inequality, but race too.

But let’s examine our actor’s performance themselves, starting with Payne. She played two distinct personalities: the woman Josephine & the man Jo. She made her voice audibly deeper as Jo and of the two, her Jo was much more enjoyable to watch.

Josephine maintained her musical notes in nearly perfect pitch, but it felt lackluster in some areas which I attribute to her presentational act. Oft in numbers like “Life” she would shift in and out of the moment, barely any engaging with her stage partner Mr. Harrison.

This lack of realness became very apparently with future scenes. Another example is when Jo pulls a gun out on Jordan (Jonathan Bragg) whom barely reacts from the threat of being shot.

If Director Kelsey Leigh Ervi’s intent was for a stylized show, it became ever so prominent in the tavern scenes where miner’s like Player 3 (Jeremy Davis) and Player 7 (Kyle Igneczi) largely exaggerated the physicality of the show in their drunken stupor. I felt some dissonance across the ensemble, which left me wishing for a more cohesive production.

In my opinion, the best of the show has to be the amazing synergy between Jordan and Sara (Kathryn Taylor Rose). Their musical number “There is This Man” is a playful rendition of tug-and-pull. Jordan, the manliest of men plays the chivalrous knight and breadwinner, carrying an aura of authority across the stage.

Watching his friendship blossom alongside Jo was a blessing to unfold. Stern and unhappy at the predicament, we get to enjoy a softening of hearts from both parties. I think Bragg has a fine singing voice!

In the love triangle, Sara plays the ethical evangelist pushing her husband to do good in the world. I liked seeing her struggle with her feelings for Jo, which gave much foreshadowing especially at the end of the first act when she stares at her when the lights dim.

The ensemble performed some amazing choreography and the pre-show vibes contributed to a great first impression engaging the audience. I saw wonderful use of movement to signify scenes like bouncing in the train, miners on their bellies swiping for silver, and incredible dance classics like the do-si-do.

Sometimes the actors and band intermingled where Player 8 (Sam Swenson) strummed cords on acoustic, and Violin player Katrina Glaze joined in the tavern. However, because of the positioning on the band, there were many times where the music distracted from the scene.

If you are sitting in certain areas of the audience, you might be annoyed by the drums overpowering the dialogue in repetitive motion. And unfortunately during the reprise of “When You Love Someone” far upstage, I could not hear any of Sara’s lyrics.

One unique take I applaud from sound designer Mark Howard is the creative mining impacts, which remained consistent throughout the show.

Costumes were beautiful to look at and watching their transformation from the 1st to 2nd act was a real treat. Talk about rags to riches! An interesting observation is the diversity in headwear with everything from pilgrim hats, bonnets and cowboy hats.

Of special note, makeup for Jo looked amazing. Everything from her scar to the red marks around her neck was superbly done. Lighting reflected details with beautiful hues of purple and gold sunshine. Many shots shared a central focus on individual singers, dimming the ambience and setting the perfect scene.

I felt the anger and trouble when the line ‘Go back to your children’ was sung out and red flashes of light revealed each player actor in their windows. I felt the healing and repair with the floral remnants on Tin Man & Jo during their rain scene.

Some timing issues in the first performance on catching narration, but nothing short of a class A show. Ervi should be very proud of all her cast and crew members to bring us a delightful evening of struggle and triumph.

This show is a great example of an underdog with something worth saying, and something worth being heard. Not the most glamorous of shows, but rather rugged reality of the early west, you are sure to be entertained at the WaterTower Theatre with “The Ballad of Little Jo”.

The Ballad of Little Jo
June 7 through June 30, 2019
WaterTower Theatre
5650 Addison Rd, Addison, TX 75001
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