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The Ballad of Little Jo

The Ballad of Little Jo is an imaginative new musical squeezed into the Bridewell theatre, a fringe venue off Fleet Street. The play was created at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, and it is an interesting investigation of (another) time in American expansion: the exploration and exploitation of the Western Frontier. Little Jo expands on the true story of Jo Monaghan, a Boston raised woman who lived in Idaho as a man for many years, leaving behind an infant son.

The set is very dark, with wood floorboards, a black backdrop and eventually some trees. It is fittingly rustic-looking, if a bit uninspired and opens very nicely and quietly, with the entire cast in a solemn procession. This ensemble acting (so important when the audience is very close to the stage and can see the slightest mistake in timing) starts things off at a very high bar, which, unfortunately, the cast is unable to maintain.

The Steppenwolf creators, Mike Reid (music) and Sarah Schlesinger (words) fit many important elements of American frontier history into this play, and it is extremely interesting to see the sexual and racial intolerance that occurred among new and old immigrants in Idaho. Josephine (Anna Francolini) leaves posh Boston for San Francisco after giving birth to an illegitimate son. She finds herself in a desolate Idaho after being robbed on the train. She is then raped, and briefly seeks refuge in a shopkeeper's home, who replaces her torn dress with men's clothing. Josephine transforms into short haired and wily Jo, and becomes a wage-earning mine for the rest of her life.

Francolini as Jo adeptly leads the audience on the Ballad. She has a beautiful voice and strong presence. However, she indulges in some behavioral shuffling onstage, unspecific stage movement, especially at points of distress or indecision. Karen Evans, as Sarah, and Kieran Brown, as the lovebird friends of Jo, are also interesting to watch and possess lovely voices. The above-mentioned storekeeper (Ellen O' Grady) is remarkable in her brief appearance: her honesty and simplicity on stage are exemplary. The weaknesses in the ensemble are apparent in the hasty transitions between scenes, and the rare moments of musical fervor in the all-cast numbers on stage.

I applaud the Bridewell for producing this historically interesting and heart-rending play. With some tightening of choreography and casting, this production could be as riveting as it deserves to be.

Music by Mike Reid; Lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger
Directed by Carol Metcalfe
Musical Director: Mike England
Choreographer: Sam Spencer Lane
Cast : Kieran Brown, Mark Carroll, Karen Evans, Anna Francolini, Gavin James, Abigail Langham, Jason Lee Scott, Ellen O'Grady, Audrey Palmer, Craig Pinder, Daniel Reeves, Phong Truong, William Wolfe Hogan, and members of the Bridewell Youth Theatre
Set Design: Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard
Lighting Designer: Hansjorg Schmidt
Costume Designer: Martin Robinson
Sound Designer: Tony Gayle
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including a 15 minute interval
Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane (off Fleet St), London EC4., Box Office 020 7936 3456.
From 26 June until 26 July 2003
Tues - Sun 7.30pm, Sun matinee 3.30pm 16.50 (12.50 concessions)
50 pay what you can tickets on sale at 6.00pm for 7.30pm performances on Sundays - at the Bridewell Box Office
Reviewed July 3 by Liza Zapol

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