‘Joy,’ new musical presented by George Street Playhouse, has strong songs but a weak story

joy musical review

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Erika Henningsen stars in the new musical “Joy,” presented by George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

“Joy,” a new musical that George Street Playhouse is presenting in its world premiere at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 30, is about Joy Mangano, the inventor who was also the subject of the 2015 film of the same name (starring Jennifer Lawrence). And like that film, it covers her struggle to establish herself as an entrepreneur with her 1990 Miracle Mop — a mop that allows you to wring out the head without bending down.

Needless to say, it’s not really a musical about a mop. It’s a musical about believing in yourself, and persevering. Erika Henningsen play the plucky heroine, who never loses her sense of determination despite being faced with an increasingly daunting series of obstacles.

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Vicki Lewis in “Joy.”

AnneMarie Milazzo — who also co-wrote the music to “A Walk on the Moon,” which George Street Playhouse presented earlier this year — has penned a strong batch of songs, including the appropriately frenzied “Welcome the World” — which introduces Joy as a harried working mom — the proudly strutting “The Only Mop You’ll Ever Need to Buy” and soaring anthems such as “Change Forever,” “Life’s Gonna Change” and “Have You Ever Felt That?”

But there is a major problem with the musical’s book, written by its co-producer Ken Davenport and based on Mangano’s autobiographical “Inventing Joy: Dare to Build a Brave and Creative Life.” (Mangano attended opening night in New Brunswick, Dec. 16, and took a bow with cast members.)

I’m all for believing in yourself. But believing in yourself doesn’t make your problems magically disappear like some spilled coffee that finds itself up against a Miracle Mop. And that’s what Joy’s journey is all about. It takes just seconds for her to win over skeptical investor Thelma (Hazel Anne Raymundo) and a few seconds more for QVC TV shopping channel executive Dan (Pomme Koch) to go from “I don’t see the demand for a premium mop in this economy” to “Can you make 5,000 of these for next month?” Joy freezes at first when she’s on QVC live, but she gets over that quickly.

For most of the musical, Joy’s mother Toots (Vicki Lewis) is agoraphobic and — forgive the pun — a real killjoy, constantly trying to deflate Joy’s dreams. Until, for no particular reason, she sees the error of her ways, and becomes an enthusiastic believe-in-yourself believer.

As I mentioned before, Joy’s obstacles become increasingly daunting late in the musical. And her triumphs over them become increasingly far-fetched.

Supporting characters include Joy’s no-good ex-husband Tony (Trent Saunders) and her equally no-good father Rudy (Stephen DeRosa), who both live in Joy’s basement and get on each other’s nerves. Tony is an aspiring singer who has the opposite problem of Joy: He doesn’t know when to abandon his dream and get a real job, insisting on devoting his life to his non-existent singing career even when his (and Joy’s) precocious 10-year-old daughter Christie (Sami Bray) is suffering. (Christie’s ballad “Is This As Good As It Gets?” is a heartbreaker.)

T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Erika Henningsen and Stephen DeRosa in “Joy.”

Rudy, meanwhile, bickers constantly with his ex-wife Toots (Toots: “Joy, please tell your father why I’m not speaking to him.” Rudy: “If only you didn’t speak to me when we were married!”). He is an experienced businessman, and a bit of a hustler. Joy makes him her manager, and he almost blows the whole thing, but he forgives himself, and Joy forgives him, with a mutual shrug.

I can’t blame the actors. Projecting indefatigable optimism, Henningsen does all she can to make Joy someone you can root for. DeRosa brings a sense of glee to Rudy’s well-meaning but questionable manipulations. And Lewis shows she has the cast’s strongest voice in her big second act number, “Mother’s Daughter.” (Unlike some of the other actors, she could always be heard clearly above the orchestra.)

Director Casey Hushion does a particularly good job with the QVC scenes, making the company seem, simultaneously, like both the key to Joy’s salvation and the epitome of corporate soullessness.

But there is only so much that Husion, or Milazzo, or the actors, can do to counteract the weakness of the story itself.

George Street Playhouse presents “Joy” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 30. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.

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