BY DAVID KENNERLEY | “Unexpected Joy,” the latest original musical incubated by the esteemed York Theatre Company, has the distinction of having one foot planted in the past and one firmly in the present. It’s a delicate balancing act; despite sometimes being on shaky ground, this earnest, well-intentioned tuner lives up to its title. Indeed, the joyous moments, and there are several, help us forgive the flaws.
Embracing the past, the play evokes the countercultural, free spirit of the 1960s, embodied by a singer-songwriter named Joy, who is as much a hippie in her golden years as she was a half-century ago. A resident of Cape Cod near Provincetown, she has clung to the ethos of peace, love, and living in the moment. She’s also hung on to unflattering fringed suede vests and floral midriff tops.
Sadly, her middle-aged daughter, Rainbow, who insists on being called Rachel, rebels against her mother’s rebellion. Not only did she move to Oklahoma to marry a Bible-thumping televangelist who demonizes homosexuality and other so-called sins, but she sings faith-based ditties on his wildly popular “Good News Hour.”
Then there’s beautiful Tamara who — you guessed it — rejects her conservative mother and is drawn to her funky grandma, Joy. She hates that her mother sings songs along the lines of “Jesus Friended Me on Facebook.” Naturally, the sullen 18-year-old is no slouch in the vocal department herself.
Complicating matters further is Lou, a defiant black lesbian singer who happens to be engaged to Joy. Not that Joy bothered to tell Rachel or Tamara.
There’s also a hokey plot thread (book by Bill Russell, Tony-nominated for “Side Show”) centering on a tribute concert that Joy is headlining in memory of her late husband, known as Jump (the musical duo was called “Jump & Joy”). Will Rachel agree to share the stage with these filthy heathens? Will Joy and Lou get married after all?
Under the guidance of Amy Anders Corcoran, the friction among these four strong-willed women is the engine that drives “Unexpected Joy.” The themes couldn’t be more topical, aligning with the renewed women’s movement and the idea that it is possible to resist corruptive forces in positions of power.
The individual performances grow stronger as the feminist-minded musical proceeds. Luba Mason is convincing as the pot-smoking, guitar-strumming granny who sings at womyn’s music fests and swings both ways. In response to Rachel’s accusations that her parents were selfish, drug-addled delinquents, Joy replies, “We were musicians!”
Clear-voiced Courtney Balan (“Falsettos”) brings a tender gravity to Rachel, torn between her Christian ideology and her love of family. As the fierce “Lesbian Warrior” Lou, the talented Allyson Kaye Daniel injects a refreshing dose of realness to the proceedings. The most impressive turn is delivered by the fresh-faced Celeste Rose, as the teenaged Tamara wise beyond her years.
In its current form, however, the piece feels like a melodrama on the Lifetime Network and it’s the musical numbers that elevate this endeavor. With a score by Janet Hood and lyrics by Russell, many of the songs — a vibrant mix of pop, folk rock, and blues — are wonderfully affecting. Fans of late 1960s soul artists like The 5th Dimension and Laura Nyro will feel right at home here.
Although the play takes place on present-day Cape Cod, there is nothing in the barebones set to reflect this. A picture window overlooking some scrub pines would have done the trick.
If “Unexpected Joy” is rough around the edges, its heart is in the right place. Not only does it deliver on its upbeat tagline “You can choose your family,” but suggests that maybe, at their core, Christians and agnostics, gays and straights, blacks and whites — and, dare I say, Republicans and Democrats? — aren’t so different after all.
And for that matter, neither is the past and present, recalling that timeless adage, the more things change the more they stay the same.
UNEXPECTED JOY | York Theatre Company | York Theatre at Saint Peter’s, Citicorp Building, 619 Lexington Ave. at E. 54th St. | Through May 27: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Thu., Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $67.50-$72.50; students, $25; yorktheatre.org | 90 mins., with no intermission