Not every regional theater has the guts, the means and the talent to create a new musical.
Arizona Theatre Company does.
And that is a huge accomplishment.
The world premiere of “Justice,” a musical about Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is on the ATC stage. Today’s much-in-demand playwright Lauren Gunderson wrote the book; Bree Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan wrote the music and lyrics.
This is of the moment. At the center of the play are Senate hearings for a new justice. Given the hearings that recently resulted in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson winning an appointment to the Supreme Court, the script was constantly undergoing revisions — even more than new plays generally do.
So the ATC production is done concert style with open scripts for the actors. It was not bare bones, mind you — multi-media is used to great effect, there was dynamic lighting and the cast wore costumes.
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The stage consists of three desks; house left is Ginsburg; on the right is O’Connor. In the center is Vera, who has been nominated to serve in the highest court and is being grilled by senators.
Important decisions made by O’Connor and Ginsburg, as well as their friendship in spite of being at opposite ends of the political spectrum, are sung about and referenced.
The first section is heavy with exposition and discussion about the court and cases. Don’t worry — there are history lessons here, but it never becomes dry.
But it was the second half of the play that was the most compelling. It is much more personal, and we discover more about their lives beyond the court.
Early on in the play, the music had a lot of sameness. It came alive, just as the play did, in the second half.
The lyrics are often very clever and informative, and there are some gorgeous songs. One, “The Mind Goes,” is sung by O’Connor shortly after she has read her letter about stepping back from public life because she had been diagnosed with dementia. Nancy Opel plays O’Connor with such fight early on, and such delicacy when she sings “Out of my depth/Out of my head/Losing the words that I just said.” It was incredibly moving.
Joan Ryan’s portrayal of Ginsburg was spot on, and when she croons “You can play it nice/Heed all the advice/Or you can be/Notorious,” she was just as spunky as Ginsburg was.
Channel Bragg is a powerful presence in her role of Vera. And she is a glorious belter.
“Justice” not only brings up questions about who needs a voice at the table, it underscores that there’s no purity in anything. Decisions both of the judges made at times were misguided. It points out how monumental Supreme Court decisions are often based on personal bias: O’Connor’s vote to halt the recount in Florida after the 2000 election was made, according to the script, because she was preparing to retire, and as a lifelong Republican, she wanted Bush to be the one to appoint her replacement.
There is a lot packed into the play, directed by Melissa Crespo. But we wish it were the personal stories of the women who had taken center stage, rather than Supreme Court cases.
But … new plays are often works in progress. This immensely talented team is likely to get it right before it moves on. And when that happens, you can say you saw it first.