It takes a lovely, lilting ukulele melody to provide a much-needed moment of reflective calm into the nearly relentless, furious, historical farce The Ballad of Juan Jose.
Richard Montoya’s play, at the Yale Repertory Theatre through October 13, was developed with Montoya’s longtime troupe Culture Clash and director Jo Bonney (whose own array of culture clashes have included directing her husband Eric Bogosian in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead).
The Ballad of Juan Jose is a progressive political comedy work-out with an ensemble of antic actors rushing through a riotous textbook of revisionist American history. The Yale Rep rendition is directed by Shana Cooper, who has the good sense not to let the intermissionless pell-mell provocations of the play
And the moment features a ukulele.
Cast member Nicole Shalhoub’s seen playing a uke several times in the show. Shalhoub’s main role is as the wife of the title character, a confounded Mexican immigrant everyman cramming for his U.S. citizenship test, but she’s also an all-purpose young woman in a succession in comedy sketches lampooning pivotal moments in U.S. relations with Mexico, Native American nations and the oppressive America’s other colonies and cultures. In the beginning of the show, Shalhoub strums uke alongside a whole folk band. When the history mix reaches the radical youth movements of the 1960s, Shalhoub brandishes a uke while she impersonates Joan Baez.
The key moment, however, is a dream sequence when Shalhoub is hoisted above the stage in a swing, where she strums and sings the uke standard “Tonight You Belong to Me.” It's a tranquil, enchanting yet properly disorienting version of the celebrated Billy Rose/Lee David composition. The tune's been used to subdue out-of-control comedy before, in the Steve Martin film The Jerk. On the other hand, famous rock mope Eddie Vedder covered it on his Ukulele Songs album.
This is a great theatrical moment, and it’s a great uke moment. The ukulele is an instrument that you can tote along easily. I’ve played uke while swinging many times myself. The gentle strum suits the mood, Shalhoub’s dainty vocalizing helps the relax the incessant chaos as required, and it all feels natural and alive.
Swing that uke, and thank the Yale Rep for appreciating the place of ukuleles in American revolutions. For more information about The Ballad of Juan Jose, see http://www.yalerep.org/
[Ukulele Advocate is a regular column on ct.com covering uke culture in Connecticut and elsewhere. This is column #2.]