TheatreNOW, located on 10th and Dock streets, has had an interesting and unexpected impact in our little world. Owner Alisa Harris revitalized a corner of Wilmington once characterized as an eyesore for most of my life. Her new venue has been a wonderful draw in the southside neighborhood of downtown. Combining our area’s love of original theatrical works with drinking and dining, as well as offering arts opportunities in the form of after-school classes and summer camps for kids, all around, it has been a wonderful asset to the area.
The shows produced have ranged from the ridiculously fluffy fun of the Irish wake variety, held during St. Patrick’s Day, to a string of productions, like “Raney,” adapted from Clyde Edgerton’s novel of the same name. In between holiday-themed shows, pirates and musicals have graced the stage, including an homage to the great bard himself, Mr. William Shakespeare.
But everyone lays an egg sometimes, and to be honest, the current offering, “Joni and JT in Jail,” was far off the mark of what I expect to see produced on TheatreNOW’s stage. It was surprising to me, too, because I feel like the space has figured out a pretty consistent bill of fare, both with food and entertainment.
“Joni and JT in Jail” by Mirla Criste is essentially a musical revue of well-known folk songs from the ‘60s. In theory, it is strung together around a script, but there is so little story and dialogue that eliminating that pretense altogether and just presenting an evening of folk songs might have saved some time.
The evening opens with a group of people getting locked up in jail after mass arrests at a peace march, circa 1968. That situation has great potential for storytelling: conflict, misunderstanding, back story, intrigue, etc. Instead, the audience is presented with flat, one-dimensional caricatures: Annabelle (Emily Gomez) the young hippie chick with ideals but no reality; Cash (Ron Hasson), the aging drifter; Preacher (Rashad Burns), the angry young veteran; and Lou (Mirle Criste), an angry mother whose son is off in Vietnam. If the caricatures interacted with each other more or had a plot (even a predictable one) to pursue, it would be worthwhile. All they do is sing to each other.
When David Gwaltney enters as the well-dressed, young lawyer-type, Jackson, his character is intended to create some depth to the show: raising issues about pre-judging people when the cast surround him and hurl Malvina Reynolds hymn to suburbia, “Little Boxes.” He naturally responds with Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”
It feels like Criste came up with about two lines of dialogue and then just plugged in the next song, rather than delve into plot, tension of realistic interaction. The exposition offers a multitude of opportunism that all get swept away and ignored.
Not that there aren’t bright spots …
Eventually, Amy Smith wanders on stage to play Jennie. If you haven’t heard Smith sing, you have missed out. She has a hauntingly lovely voice, and her rendition of “Both Sides, Now” would make even Ms. Joni Mitchell proud. Not that she sounds like Mitchell—no one does. Even Mitchell hasn’t been able to hit those high notes in years. But Smith brings a calm, beautiful conviction to the piece that will make audiences sit forward and take notice.
Though several people play guitar live onstage, which is a nice touch, Hasson is really the only one who looks comfortable doing so. Frankly, Hasson is one of those rare, lucky people who can effortlessly strum an endless melody to accompany any storytelling. That is pretty much what he does throughout the show: underscore other people, or play along more obviously.
However, for all of my disappointment in this experiment, the night I attended, a couple sitting stageside sang along at top volume to every song. The lady was dancing in her seat in time to “If I Had a Hammer.” So, the familiarity of the music will comfort many—but Chef Denise Gordon’s three-course meal will comfort everyone. (I came home so stuffed I could barely move.) The portobello mushroom pasta tastes decadent in a heavy, creamy Sherry sauce. The wedge salad is huge and cool cucumbers and salty bacon crumbles wonderfully complements the decadent blue cheese. Paired with a nice cool glass of white wine before a lovely chocolate cake dessert, it’s a perfect meal. To be honest, the $32 price tag for dinner and a show at TheatreNOW is about what I would pay for a meal only at somewhere like Osteria Cicchetti. From that standpoint, getting a little music in the deal is an added bonus.
I personally think if TheatreNOW wanted to do a folk musical revue, they should have either done a straight-forward evening of music or shelled out the money for the royalties to “Hair.” “Joni and JT in Jail” has fallen somewhere off to the side between the two. Unfortunately, it doesn’t grow to become anything.