“Joy” is mostly perfect and totally moving

1822
The full cast of
The Company of "JOY: A New Musical." Photo by Bruce Glikas
Erika Henningsen and Trent Saunders smiling
Erika Henningsen and Trent Saunders of JOY: A New Musical. Photo by Bruce Glikas

The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick has come up with a winning addition to this season’s holiday fare, the world premiere of a new musical, Joy. Based on the true story of inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano, it is an entertaining, funny, and heartwarming story that is sure to prove a favorite with audiences.

Mangano’s book, Inventing Joy: Dare to Build a Brave and Creative Life, has been adapted by Ken Davenport with music and lyrics by AnnMarie Milazzo (the composer of last season’s A Walk on the Moon) and directed by Casey Hushion with choreography by Joshua Bergasse. Hushion and Bergasse have guided their cast with skill and care to mostly satisfying results.

The story centers around Joy (Erika Henningsen), a harried divorceé living in a suburban Long Island house with daughter Christie (Sami Bray), ex Tony (Trent Saunders), agoraphobic mother Toots (Vicki Lewis), and Toots’ ex Rudy (Stephen DeRosa). Joy, the sole support of the fractured household, both financially and emotionally, has been fired from her job. At her wit’s end, while cleaning one more spill, she breaks her mop. Her frustration reignites her childhood’s inventive nature, and she comes up with the idea of the self-wringing Miracle Mop. Christie and Rudy enthusiastically support Joy in making and selling her mop locally.

Joy presents her product to QVC’s all-male marketing group, led by Dan (Pomme Koch). They initially turn her down, but Dan’s assistant Ronni (Badia Farha) helps Joy to change their minds. After a disastrous initial pitch by a clueless QVC host, a stage-frightened Joy is put on camera to pitch her mop, which sells out with Ronni’s behind-the-scenes assistance.

Repeated appearances are increasingly successful, and sales boom.  However, due to Rudy’s business incompetence, Joy finds herself facing a court battle with her manufacturer (John Hickok). Toots, making an unexpected visit to the courtroom, tells Joy to ignore her lawyer’s advice to keep silent in court and to defend her dream as Toots herself failed to do.

The cast is the show’s strongest asset, especially its female leads. Erika Henningsen, as Joy, is unafraid of encompassing all the contradictions in her character’s path to self-expression and fulfillment. Her voice is superb, and in her ballads “Change Forever” and “Have You Ever Felt That?” she unleashes a power that sweeps over the audience from beginning to end. In this, she is matched by Sami Bray’s portrayal of Christie, a perfectly nuanced mix of youthful frustration and hopes. In the song “Is This As Good As It Gets?” delivered to each of her parents separately, she pleads for honesty from them even if it means hearing embarrassing truths. As the pessimistic Toots, Vicki Lewis reveals how her own dreams were dashed in “Mother’s Daughter,” a show-stopping second-act number. Comic support comes from Stephen DeRosa’s ever-hustling Rudy and Hazel Anne Raymundo as Thelma, Rudy’s new girlfriend. John Hickok provides a misogynistic villainy with a coating of fake Texan charm as Joy’s crooked manufacturer.

Stephen De Rosa, Vicki Lewis, Erika Hennigsen standing next to each other smiling
L to R: Stephen De Rosa, Vicki Lewis, Erika Hennigsen of JOY: A New Musical. Photo by Bruce Glikas

Just as strong are the show’s creative components. AnnMarie Milazzo’s score encompasses a range of styles and emotions, and while there are one or two numbers that don’t quite work, the rest of the music fits the characters at each moment of their journeys. Anna Louizos’ set is as dazzling a piece of work as has been seen on the George Street Playhouse’s stages in a long time, which, when combined with Jen Schriever’s lighting and Dan Moses Schrier’s sound designs, creates the many worlds of Joy, from her Long Island home to the QVC studios to a Texas courtroom. Rick Edinger’s orchestra provides a lively accompaniment to the on-stage action.

While Joy has many solid components, there are several areas that could be revised and fleshed out. Despite that, Joy is entertaining, delivering a solid uplift for the audience, splendid visually and vocally. As entertainment, George Street Playhouse has come up with a welcome addition to the holiday season, filled as it is with hope and the strength of family and dreams. Don’t postpone Joy!

Joy is presented by the George Street Playhouse in the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through December 30, 2022. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit georgestplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717. The center strongly recommends wearing masks while in the building but does not mandate their use. In the interest of transparency:  Allen Neuner, our theatre reviewer, works in the Patron Services Office of George Street Playhouse.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.