I take no pleasure in writing this review. I admire the work and mission of the Public and have been attending productions there since the final years of Joe Papp’s tenure. This is a company that still takes risks, that pushes envelope, that supports its artists. And sometimes the risk pays off with dividends (see Hamilton). Even their failures, such as Party People, are often noble efforts. Alas, there is nothing noble about Joan of Arc Into the Fire.
I was glad to see David Byrne’s name on this season’s roster; Byrne wrote the music, lyrics, and book for Joan of Arc. The pre-set offers great promise. Hung across the stage is a banner with Mitch McConnell’s now infamous line about Elizabeth Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Then the show begins, and that promise is abandoned. Over the course of roughly 90 minutes, the entire sweep of Joan’s meteoric rise and fall is chronicled. There is great dramatic potential here as both George Bernard Shaw and Jean Anouilh have discovered; indeed there is much for a musical to dive into. For instance, Joan (Jo Lampert) is known for her visions of the Archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine. The structure and language of musical theatre offers a great number of possibilities here of bringing those visions fully to life and providing each figure his or her own musical theme; of course, it could be an open question as to whether Joan was imbued or insane. But that rich vein, like so many others, was left untouched.
The show often feels like an endurance test. Musically, the first 45 minutes are repetitive. Most of the songs are exposition. The production seems to be unsure of what it wants to do. Does it want to follow Brecht’s strategy and utilize the historical figure for the purposes of contemporary political commentary? Which would be great. That makes a great deal of senses. But the creators never commit to that. Instead we get tired tropes of the freedom-loving French (really?) against the tyrannical English (again, really?). Other aspects of the Joan legend are rushed over. She took an arrow at the Battle of Orleans. This should have been a momentous moment, musically epic. Instead, it was meh. She also ferreted out the Dauphin in disguise when she first arrived at court. Another opportunity for a beautiful moment — a complicated duet between the two perhaps — was just left sitting there. Imagine what a Sondheim or Miranda could have done with that. One had the sense that the events of Joan’s life – whether history or legend – did not have narrative momentum or impact but were rather just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Alex Timbers offers uninspired direction with a combination of slow-motion fight choreography under a strobe light and the Les Miz turn-table (now with stairs!). And, out of nowhere, we get Mare Winningham as Joan’s mother in the last five minutes. We are told that she is important, but it all seems so extraneous at this point. During the trial, supertitles flash onto the wall telling us that what we are about to hear is actually from the transcript at the time. We should not be told these things. Done well, musicals have the ability to make us feel what is important, to know what is important without being told.
David Byrne’s work – whether as a member of the Talking Heads or in his solo career – is something I long admired and enjoyed, but his distinctive style and voice was very much MIA throughout the proceedings. Neither his albums or films (True Stories) are strong on narrative propulsion, but they do paint intriguing vignettes and character portraits. That strength, though, was not in evidence. No doubt a separate librettist should have been hired to provide structure.
The cast performs herculean labors to overcome the deficiencies in writing and directing. Lambert, Terence Archie (as Warwick), and Sean Allan Krill (Bishop Cauchon) all resonate on stage. If there is a weak link in the cast, it is Kyle Selig as a drip of a Dauphin.
Sadly, Joan of Arc Into the Fire is simply not worth your time. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” Jefferson says in Hamilton. And so, apparently, for every Hamilton there must be a Joan of Arc.