By Barry Willis
Power outages caused by high winds threatened to scuttle the press opener of Justice: A New Musical at Marin Theatre Company this past Tuesday Feb. 21. MTC officials were almost ready to reschedule when the power returned after the opening scene. It was stressful for cast, crew, and audience alike but good luck prevailed.
Ably directed by Ashley Rodbro, the production is the latest from prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson, author of the wonderful Silent Sky among many other works, and MTC’s playwright-in-residence.
…Gunderson’s tale is an engaging one…
Justice tells the tale of the first three female Supreme Court justices. A musical without choreography (book by Gunderson, lyrics by Kait Kerrigan, music by Bree Lowdermilk), it begins with Sandra Day O’Connor’s ascension to the high court in 1981, followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993 and later, Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina justice.
Stephanie Prentice nails the role of Sotomayor and narrates much of the story, primarily conveyed in operetta fashion through song. Karen Murphy embodies O’Connor’s reticent Republican/Episcopalian personality, and Lynda DiVito is perfectly cast as the diminutive intellectual powerhouse Ginsburg. All three are in fine voice with Lowdermilk’s difficult music. DiVito and Prentice are especially strong singers.
Gunderson’s tale is an engaging one, particularly in its depiction of the gracious mentorship shown by O’Connor to Ginsburg despite their political and philosophical differences. They are united in their womanhood, the bond made stronger by mutual understanding of their responsibilities as wives. Some of this is conveyed by tangential material about their private lives, including, as time moves on, their husbands’ medical issues and ultimately, their own. Supreme Court justices enjoy lifetime appointments and have no mandatory retirement age. Many have left the court only when medical conditions dictated that they do so.
Lowdermilk’s music adheres strongly to current fashion in musical theater: bombastic and almost atonal. It will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen Next to Normal or Mean Girls – but there’s not a memorable melody in the show. Most of the songs are insistent forthright feminist anthems shouted at the audience, a receptive one at the press opener. Ticket-buyers expecting melodious uplift of the West Side Story or My Fair Lady variety will be hugely disappointed.
Ostensibly about the first three women on the Supreme Court, the story extends into the present with a veiled reference to an unnamed woman appointed to the court by the 45th president, and a cheerleading mention of Ketanji Brown Jackson that drew an enthusiastic response from the MTC crowd. The unnamed woman was Amy Coney Barrett, intentionally left out of the narrative because of her ultra-conservative politics. Also ignored is Elena Kagan. A story about the rise of female judicial superstars should certainly include them, regardless of how the play’s authors feel about them.
Justice: A New Musical is thus a skewed, incomplete history. If Gunderson and company had contained the narrative to O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor—three sisters in judicial robes—that would have been acceptable, but bringing it into the present while ignoring two significant female justices is problematic.
An outstanding feature of this show is the justices’ civility—and even mutual affection—regardless of differing philosophies and legal interpretations, and the deep friendship shared by Ginsburg and her high court opponent Antonin Scalia.
Ginsburg and Scalia were on opposite sides of almost every issue that came before the court, but they had abiding love and respect for each other despite their differences. That is a lesson for all of us.
Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Production||Justice: A New Musical|
|Book -- Lyrics -- Music||Lauren Gunderson -- Kait Kerrigan -- Bree Lowdermilk|
|Directed by||Ashley Rodbro|
|Producing Company||Marin Theatre Company (MTC)|
|Production Dates||Through Mar 12th|
|Production Address||Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK?||----|