When a New Jersey theater presents a musical, it is almost invariably a tried-and-true classic or a new work. “The Ballad of Little Jo,” currently being staged at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, is neither: It premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2000 but has not received a second full production in the United States until this one.
It’s set, mostly, in an Idaho mining town, and is a bit of a gem itself. Adapted from the 1993 movie of the same name, it is based on the real story of a woman who was forced, by circumstance, to live as a man, keeping the secret from even her closest friends. It’s a deeply layered musical, touching on themes of frustrated love, and prejudice, and the hope for a better life that the American West represented in the 1800s. It has some kitschy touches, but is ultimately more tragic than comic, and builds toward a deeply emotional ending.
Teal Wicks plays the title character, who, as the play begins, is a 19-year-old Bostonian who has had a son out of wedlock. She leaves him with her sister and takes a train bound for San Francisco, where she thinks she can find work and make enough money to be able to support both herself, and him.
She’s hopeful and a bit naive, and eager to get on with her new life. However, she gets stranded in Idaho (still a U.S. territory, not yet a state) and ends up spending the rest of her life there. Her son grows up without her, though he later attempts to track her down. By this time, she has cut her hair and purposely scarred her face, and is wearing men’s clothes and calling herself Jo instead of Josephine.
This has nothing to do with her sexual identity; she is heterosexual, period. But it was difficult enough just to survive in the struggling mining town of Silver City, Idaho, in the late 1800s. For a single woman attempting to create a place for herself there, it would have been nearly impossible.
Jo works as a silver prospector and, later, a general store co-owner. She secretly falls in love with Jordan (Eric William Morris), but, of course, she can’t tell him, and he doesn’t have a clue. Meanwhile, Jordan’s fiancée Sara (Jane Bruce) is in love with Jo, but Jo, secretly being a woman, rejects her, and so Sara goes ahead and marries Jordan. (One of the most unconvincing things about the play is Jordan’s transformation: He starts out as a crass suitor, unworthy of Sara, but is depicted, later, as a total mensch.)
Further complications ensue — and the play becomes a bit timely — when jobs become scarce and the previously decent folks of Silver City transform into an unruly mob, eager to take their anger out on outsiders.
A seven-piece band, onstage but only partly visible, plays the sturdy score, written by Grammy-winning songwriter (“I Can’t Make You Love Me”) Mike Reid with lyricist Sarah Schlesinger. Reid, Schlesinger and Two River Theater artistic director John Dias co-wrote the book, and Dias also directs the production. Michael Carnahan’s scenic design is suitably rough-hewn and rustic.
What does the future hold for “The Ballad of Little Jo”? It’s not really a feel-good musical — and though it’s connected to a movie, that movie was only modestly successful — so it doesn’t seem likely that a lot of companies are going to be rushing to stage it. Yet it would be nice to think that the Two River Theater’s revival will give it some new life, and that we’ll begin to see new productions pop up occasionally, here and there, so that it won’t be totally forgotten.
“The Ballad of Little Jo” will be at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through June 25; visit tworivertheater.org.