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Joan of Arc: Into the Fire

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 15, 2017


Jo Lampert
Photo by Joan Marcus

For their first musical together at The Public Theater in 2013, Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Alex Timbers (working with Fatboy Slim) chose Imelda Marcos to anchor a disco-fueled swirl through the modern revolutionary history of the Philippines, though they struggled to make its central personality worth all the fuss. Byrne and Timbers's just-opened second joint venture, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, draws on a more revered figure, but still wants to fix the actions of an extraordinary woman (really a girl—she died when she was about 19) within our present musical and dramatic vernaculars.

Alas, the result, though epic and in many ways appealing, has its own set of problems. Foremost among them: How can a musical in which nearly every scene is consumed with some kind of fighting—whether hand-to-hand combat, religious disagreements, personal squabbles, or recriminations against God—lack a pulse?

Set as it is during the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), in which England and France battled over issues of succession, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, would seem to be poised to be at least as spine-tingling as its thematic and stylistic forebear, Les Misérables. (At one point, choreographer Steven Hoggett, in what must be an intentional homage to its iconic Act I finale, positions the performers in a wedge with a waving flag behind them.) But whereas its tone moderates and evolves as its narrative (and that of its lead character, Jean Valjean) demands, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire's stays on an even keel throughout.

If this succeeds in orienting you toward Joan's perspective, so you better relate to her through her triumphs and travails, it also stunts her growth. Byrne's songs, which he also orchestrated and arranged with the assistance of musical director Kris Kukul, skirt the edges of light rock without ever sliding headfirst into Jesus Christ Superstar territory. For this reason, they are particularly effective in depicting Joan as the devoted Christian in her scenes of prayer, communion, or affliction. Because they don't also possess the urgency of her crusade, however, the woman who exists outside of her personal worship remains frustratingly remote. (One attempt, sung by Captain Baudricourt, Joan's military mentor, both rounds out and depresses her personality: "I once saw her beautiful breasts / And yet no man alive dared to touch her / This is something far greater than flesh.")

Overburdened by this contemplative streak, Byrne and director Timbers have managed to make their musical every imaginable thing except exciting. This is a bit of a surprise for Timbers, who did so not only with Here Lies Love but also (to name only two that landed on Broadway) Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Rocky, and has rarely had trouble making his visuals visceral. His staging doesn't want for fluidity or color; it constantly reminds us of the glorious possibilities Joan envisions as tempered by the gritty stakes Joan must overcome. And Hoggett's dances, among the best he's conceived for a musical in New York, smartly fuse the martial and the mystical influences that are forever at work against her.


Jo Lampert
Photo by Joan Marcus

But without a deeper connection between the staging, the music, and the plot, it often feels as though the three elements are, like England and France, occupying the same ground but unable to communicate with each other. No number of stylized sword fights, or magically appearing spear cages and revolving stairs that are part of Christopher Barreca's set, can create energy in a vacuum; nor can the roundly expert flair-kissed costumes (Clint Ramos), concert-tuned lighting (Justin Townsend), or explosive projections (Darrel Maloney) or sound (Cody Spencer). All they can do is pretty up the surroundings and make you wistfully wonder what could have (should have?) been, had all the pieces united.

You might be doing that a lot given how much Byrne gets right. Stumbling only once, in a poorly judged (and poor) comic number for a cadre of priests "torturing" Joan with Bible verses, he charts his heroine's journey clearly and concisely, from simple girl to leader of a holy war against the English on behalf of the yet-to-be-crowned Charles VII to a powerful martyr. "What can one person do?" asks the opening lyric. "As we're swept by time and tides / Are we as helpless as it seems? And not the masters of our lives?" Byrne lets us see not only what Joan can (and does) do, but what her limitations are, thus revealing her as a complete person outside of her well-worn biography of visions of the Archangel Michael and various saints (something Byrne could address more directly) and her being burned at the stake for heresy.

As Joan, Jo Lampert adds plenty of depth of her own, capturing both the innocence and her bloodthirsty passion, the hidebound traditionalist and the forward-thinker who broke every barrier she encountered. She's at once sharp-edged and soft-centered, roughening up her gentler lines and bestowing her harshest words with a detectable grace by way of her firm though unpolished singing voice. Balancing her well are Michael James Shaw, who brings a quiet intensity to the army captain who mentors her, and Sean Allan Krill, who's magnetic as the bishop who faces his own trial of faith while helping Joan through hers. Terence Archie, wielding a likable ferocity as her chief English adversary, and Kyle Selig, as the scheming Dauphin, provide first-rate support as well. And though Mare Winningham appears in only a single scene as Joan's mother, it's one of the 90-minute, intermissionless evening's most sensitive and heartfelt turns.

It's also one of the few where the staging and writing are in complete accord, and everything is moving at the same speed and complexity. Such moments tend to conjure magic in the theatre, and with Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, there is no exception: You see what it so desperately wants to be—and could be, with a little more tinkering. The conflicting messages just get in the way. For example, must the show open with a full-stage rendering of Mitch McConnell's already-infamous "She persisted" quote about Elizabeth Warren? Equating a senate confirmation debate with Joan's life-or-death struggles and spiritual strife strikes a tone and sets a bar that, whatever your politics, are more appropriately left alone.

Once Joan and the presentation of her story are in alignment, all the necessary historical parallels will fall into place. But until the former is secure, forcing the latter does a disservice to Joan and audiences alike.


Joan of Arc: Into the Fire
Through April 30
Newman Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: publictheater.org


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