Lauren M. Gunderson has written a musical! Rarely does a playwright wander through so many fields as Ms. Gunderson, and always with astonishing aplomb.
“Justice” has the impressively polished construction that distinguishes all of Ms. Gunderson’s work, and is admirably researched. What we get is an easy-to-digest history lesson featuring the first three women in America to rise to the position of Supreme Court Justice.
Their rise to the Supreme Court is impressive. But, as this production makes abundantly clear, the good fight has only begun.
Gunderson’s words and the songs of Bree Lowdermilk (music) and Kait Kerrigan (lyrics) make this abundantly clear. Not only do we learn of the hardships faced by these three very different women as they rise through the murk of the patriarchy to positions of real power, we also watch in horror as many of their accomplishments are reversed and turned back in recent years.
The story is both a celebration of history and a militant call to arms, delivered in a very entertaining package. But there is a flaw at it its’ heart which is not fully overcome. Each of the justices essentially delivers personal and national history through monolog and song, barely interacting with one another at all. With a lack of other characters with which to interact, these women seem somewhat ghostly. Without interactive emotion, there is a mechanical, overly analytical feel to it all. We get our lesson, and we enjoy the show (the songs are full of melody and wit) but the overall effect is strangely distant.
Perhaps this distance is a manifestation of judicial temperament, but I would have preferred for things to get a bit more down into the emotional interaction rather than all this judicial restraint.
What works best, though, works very well indeed. Singing actresses Karen Murphy (playing Sandra O’Connor), Lynda DiVito (Ruth Bader Ginsberg), and Stephanie Prentice (Sonia Sotomayor) are excellent.
The piece de resistance of this production, though, is an absolutely bravura performance by Karen Murphy as Sandra O’Connor, who delivers the show’s best moment. It is a song which she sings about Sandra’s recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, after having nursed her husband through his own decline. It is a lengthy song, brilliantly written and brilliantly performed, that works as a rich dramatic monologue. How good is it? It is impossible not to compare it with Sondheim and, in that comparison, it definitely holds its own. Lowdermilk and Kerrigan wrote an extraordinary number, and Murphy delivers it in an extraordinary performance.
Lynda DiVito, as Justice Ginsberg, also has a charming turn to do singing a song celebrating the rise of “Notorious RBG”, which is sweet and funny.
Alas, although Stephanie Prentice is very good as Sonia Sotomayer, she is not gifted with a comparable song. One imagines this will be remedied in future productions by the highly skilled songwriting team.
Overall, this is a fine production with one spectacular song that is worth the price of admission. This is a musical that is likely to have a long life and many incarnations, and it will be interesting to watch it develop. I suspect it will grow into something quite different and even more wonderful. Keep an eye out!
“Justice” plays at Marin Theatre Company for a final weekend, closing March 12. For ticket information, click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Justice:,” a new musical by Lauren M. Gunderson. Music by Bree Lowdermilk. Lyrics by Kait Kerrigan. Director: Ashley Rodbro. Orchestrations: Mike Pettry. Additional Orchestrations, arrangements, and vocal arrangements: Bree Lowdermilk. Music Director: Ruiran Xun. Dramaturg/Producer: Nakissa Etemad. Scenic/Projections Designer: Carlos Aceves. Costume Designer: Maggie Morgan. Lighting Designer: Kate Boyd. Sound Designer: Lane Elms. Props Lead: Liam Rudisill. Movement Director: Deborah Slater.
Sandra: Karen Murphy. Ruth: Linda Divito. Sonia: Stephanie Prentice.
“Justice” is a continued world premiere at Marin Theatre Company, first produced at Arizona Theatre Company.