Tash J. Wilson-Hatchett, Karly Jones, Karole Spangler, & Jessica Tanselle in Unexpected Joy. Photo: Bill Brymer

Unexpected Joy

Book and lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Janet Hood
Directed by Valerie Canon

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

An all-female identifying cast and crew celebrate complex relationships among women and how much work sometimes goes into sustaining them in Unexpected Joy.

Joy (Karole Spangler) is performing at a concert to celebrate her late partner, Jump. As the famous Jump and Joy, they were a legendary folk-rock musical duo who are known almost as much for their counter-culture activism as for their music. She has invited her daughter, Rachel (Jessica Tanselle), and granddaughter, Tamara (Karly Jones) to join her onstage. Tamara is a free spirit in open rebellion against her parent’s evangelical celebrity. She has been sneaking out to coffee shop open mics to sing her own songs, so she is more than ready, but Rachel’s religious conservatism has driven a great wedge between her and her mother that is difficult to overcome. Joy ‘s new secret is that another singer, Lou (Tash J. Wilson-Hatchett) is engaged to Joy and they plan to marry the day after the concert. 

Tamara and Rachel react pretty much as you might expect, one with effisuve acceptance and the other with self-righteous outrage, yet as much as Unexpected Joy gives voice to strict religious fundamental values it is firmly sympathetic to the love story between Joy and Lou. 

Yet it does not take up the easy target that Rachel provides. It may not agree with her, but it refuses to demonize or humiliate her and in two numbers pays respect to her point-of-view: “Better Times Are Comin” displays her solid musical chops when performing on her husbands gospel broadcast, and “Raising Them Right” allows insight into the struggle of parenting a teenager when all you can think of is how to protect them.

Space for all voices is important here because Unexpected Joy is too pedantic in its setup. It needs to deliver more than tidy resolution and a good musical score to resonate and it does so through individual attention to the four women. Karole Spangler feels so real and lived in as Joy that she mostly overcomes the moments of awkward sitcom transition the text imposes, and Jessica Tanselle expertly navigates Rachel’s shifts between the warmth of being a loving daughter and the fear and judgment of being a mother.

Karly Jones is the epitome of the earnest and idealist Tamara, a teenager hungry for freedom and seeing it in Joy’s life. Tash J. Wilson-Hatchett is bold and sassy as Lou, unable to hide the very part of her personality that Joy seems to value most but will cause conflict.

All four have vocal power in their performance of the score, ranging from Spangler’s assured character singing to Wilson-Hatchett’s forceful bluesy tones. All are perfectly cast and do fine work that demand more investment in the characters from the audience than the text earns on its own.

It’s a good looking production. The ubiquitous Clarity Hagan has fashioned an efficient two-part set beneath an accordion array of soft fabric and geometric elements that define both the private and the public spaces of the play. Donna Lawrence Downs finds the correct shape and flow of how these women dress, and Lindsay Krupski’s lights smoothly transfer our attention and give appropriate emphasis.

The band is very good although I longed for a heavier rock kick on a couple of the numbers, but I suppose theatre decorum demands the restraint. The players seemed capable of more than was required and Music Director Nina Espinueva’s arrangements gave the music good flavor.

Unexpected Joy plays with cliches and stereotypes, which always courts predictability. While Bill Russell’s book doesn’t entirely avoid that trap, it does put meat on the journey’s bones so that issues between the characters get good play. Combined with the musical numbers, it makes for a solid evening’s entertainment.

Featuring Karly Jones, Karole Spangler, Jessica Tanselle, & Tash J. Wilson-Hatchett

Band: Ava Bradley, Nina Espinueva, Anna Spoonamore-Guillon, Z Zhou   

Unexpected Joy

November 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, & 19 @ 7:30 pm
November 12 @ 3:00 pm, November 13 @ 5:30 pm
November 14 @ 7:00 pm

Pandora Productions
The Henry Clay Theater
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.