Tuesday, June 25, 2024

If You Ask Me: A Complicated Woman

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New Musical Debuts at Norma Terris

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

A Complicated Woman, the new musical based on the life of theatrical producer and summer stock maestro John Kenley, recently closed at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre. Here was a challenging adult musical that probably would never play Goodspeed’s mainstage in East Haddam, but was right at home at their intimate venue in Chester where adventurous new musicals are regularly workshopped. A Complicated Woman, while far from perfect at this point of development, demonstrated enough promise to indicate it may enjoy a future life on bigger stages.

John Kenley was an American theatrical producer who was mentored by legendary producer Lee Shubert in the late 1920s and pioneered the use of television stars in summer stock productions.  Kenley was living two lives, however. Born intersex, he presented as male in his professional life but, in private, enjoyed life as “Jean” and had a close circle of friends and like-minded individuals.  With book by Ianne Fields Stewart, music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle with additional lyrics by Sam Salmond, A Complicated Woman tackles difficult material with care and respect.

Nora Brigid Monahan portrays John/Jean with a determined spirit and gregarious L. Morgan Lee steals scenes as his best friend Nina Mae. The great Klea Blackhurst, who made a terrific Dolly Levi in Goodspeed’s Hello, Dolly! a few years back, seems a little stymied in the underwritten role of John’s sister, Myrtle. Danny Rutigliano, however, makes a strong and memorable impression as Lee Shubert performing the outsized legend with gusto.

The remaining cast members are fairly uneven in hit-or-miss roles, especially Arewa Basit (Diamond) and Zachary A. Myers (Muhlaysia) as a pair of Jean’s friends whose characters had me questioning their relationship throughout the show. Danshiell Gregory playing Carl, a potential boyfriend for John, has a confused seduction scene in act one and then basically disappears in act two.

Speaking of that act, A Complicated Woman is a prime example of the notorious “second act problems” theory. The creators do a very good job of setting up John/Jean’s complicated story in act one only to fall victim to confusion and unnecessary sequences in the second act.

The issues with the characters of Carl, Diamond and Muhlaysia become most evident in act two.  The women seemed to be plunked down here to kill time while Jean is making a costume change.  The minor score has one rousing anthem (“The Man Who Runs the Show”) and a showstopper for Lee (“Nina Mae”), but the rest seems repetitive and uninspired. And while Monahan does valiant work in the leading role, a more magnetic and stronger personality would be required if Broadway is on the minds of producers.

All said, this is a promising and timely new musical project that is worth fighting for. I applaud Goodspeed’s continuing efforts in encouraging and nurturing new works. Fingers crossed that A Complicated Woman gets the help it needs and has many more incarnations.

“A Complicated Woman” recently closed at the Terris Theatre in Chester. Next up on Goodspeed’s mainstage is a revival of South Pacific, opening June 19th, while the Terris will offer another new musical, Ask for the Moon, opening July 19th.  Tickets available for both shows at www.goodspeed.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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