March 27, 2009

A spirited longing-to-leave musical

by Greg Boyle

Kansas City Rep’s new artistic director Eric Rosen has set an emphasis on producing recent works. With that in mind, the Rep has mounted a production titled Winesburg, Ohio. This musical is an adaptation by Rosen of the famous Sherwood Anderson novel of the same name.

In spite of its reported influence on such writers as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Anderson’s work is not truly a novel rather it consists of a series of short stories. All the stories are interconnected; they all take place in a particular small town in Ohio. Not coincidentally, the town is similar to the one Anderson himself grew up in at the turn of the twentieth century. Rosen has kept the vignette format for the musical adaptation, which won an award for best new musical in Philadelphia in 2006.

The message of the play is that the world hasn’t changed in the last hundred years, and perhaps not in the last thousand. Underneath its slow-moving, church-going, bucolic façade — love, lust and longing exist in this small town to the same degree that we see anyplace today.

Bruce Roach as Joe Welling leads a Winesburg, Ohio ensemble of Nancy Hindman, Ashlee LaPine, Geoff Packard and Gary Holcombe in a baseball romp called "A Man of Ideas." (photo by Don Ipock Photography)
The central character is a young reporter for the local newspaper, George Willard. George is played by Geoff Packard, who is on loan to the Rep from the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera. Obviously, the boy is talented, with a fine singing voice, marvelous stage presence and a callowness that makes the boy-into-man role work. George is continually asking people what’s new in their businesses and lives, but no one ever admits to anything. Through the device of a narrator/older version of George, we discover that in spite of their denials, everyone in town harbors a secret. James Judy plays the narrator with a touch of melancholy for things lost.

There isn’t a bad bit of casting anywhere to be found in Winesburg. There are performers that we recognize from many Rep appearances, such as Gary Holcombe, who gives a touching performance as Wing Biddlebaum, and Gary Neal Johnson, as George’s father Tom, who movingly portrays a man trying to live vicariously through his son.

Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, who wrote the music, open the show with a terrific number called “When I Was A Girl,” featuring the reminiscences of George’s invalid mother, played by Leslie Denniston. Characters are presented simultaneously in multiple stages of their lives, and Denniston’s vocal with Rosen’s imaginative staging gives the show a rousing start. The first half dozen songs are throwbacks to an older period of stage musicals, with beautifully crafted individual melodies and words. The style is akin to bluegrass, with guitars, fiddles and banjos featured. The players — Michalis Koutsoupides, conductor/piano, Ryan Fisher and Aaron Fry, guitars, Rick Wiloughby, bass, and Michael Winer, violin — are all first rate and gave the audience a foot-stompin’ good time.

The highest of several highlights was the comedic relief of “A Man of Ideas” sung by Bruce Roach as Joe Welling. Roach’s performance is the most fun to watch of the entire evening. His goofy body language and manic antics are reminiscent of the wackiest moments of space alien John Lithgow.

At the end of the first act, the music settles into the post-1980’s modern semi-operatic form made popular by Sweeney Todd, Les Miz, Phantom, et al. The music is no longer hummable and becomes merely a vehicle for allowing the actors to sing their thoughts instead of speaking them.

However, the ensemble vocal performances are stirring. The sound of so many beautifully trained voices singing in concert truly moves the spirit. That is a tribute to the now deceased Molly Jessup, music director. This was Jessup’s last show before her death, and it is a fitting coda.

The choreography of Jennifer Martin is also enjoyable in every one of the many dance sequences. The movements she gives the town folk seem appropriate for the time and place, and at the same time they are lively to watch.

We are exposed to one person’s story after another as the play unfolds. We discover that everyone has had dreams and that in the end; they all have been dashed. Apparently, everyone in Winesburg just wants to get the hell out of town, and laments their lost opportunities for doing so, especially George’s mother. We hear her lament several times. Unfortunately, the final reprise of “When I Was a Girl” near the end of the show elicits much less sympathy than it did at the opening.

Winesburg, Ohio has been well received in other locales. The audience I sat near had mixed opinions. There was plenty of applause at the end of the performance, but some in the audience I talked with were confused by why everyone in Winesburg, Ohio wanted out so badly.

Winesburg, Ohio is a work in progress, as indicated by Rosen before the preview performance. He made changes as late as the morning of the Sunday preview, and asked for written feedback from the audience. In spite of the cavils I have noted, it is a fine show. However, I long for the return of the kind of songwriters who could put together an entire evening of memorable tunes.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of Winesburg, Ohio is playing at the Spencer Theatre on UMKC campus through April 5. For tickets, call the box office at 816-235-2700 or online at

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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