The Rep tries to make beautiful music out of disillusionment

The book Winesburg, Ohio is often preoccupied with the question of how an artist might capture the truth of a place like Winesburg, Ohio, so I can’t assume that author Sherwood Anderson would object to giving his bleak, disillusioned masterwork the old show-tune makeover. The writers, painters and dreamers of Anderson’s Winesburg ache to make sense of their stifling town. Why shouldn’t writer-director-lyricist Eric Rosen and his collaborators give it a go? I mean, besides the fact that the stories comprising Anderson’s prickly 1919 book take place in a world of oppressive silence? Or that the dread inspired by a chorus belting there is “no such thing as truth” owes more to aesthetics than it does to existentialism?

If you can get past its conceptual muddles and occasional dead spots, much of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s gloss on Winesburg, Ohio is realized with the clarity and boldness that are marking Rosen’s tenure as the Rep’s artistic director.

He has assembled a baker’s dozen of Anderson’s best stories, a strong chorus, an ace string band and a moving score (from Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) steeped in mountain ballads and plaintive bluegrass. He artfully marshals the Rep’s millions so that the lavish production values always inform the material rather than distract from it. (Gone at last is that nostalgia-from-a-can lighting that used to ooze over Rep shows like Mrs. Butterworth’s on flapjacks.) Rosen coaxes superior performances up and down his cast. He inspires a bravura comic turn by Bruce Roach — a sputtering riff on baseball and The Music Man — that should be exhibit A in any defense of the contemporary musical. And he liberates the talented John-Michael Zuerlein and Jessalyn Kincaid from the light comedies where they’ve toiled for too long.

Best of all, he has dared to stage a musical that glitters grimly.

James Judy haunts the stage as a narrator called “The Writer,” singing of the everyday discord in Anderson’s town. He shares hard, unforgiving tales of heroes who are rotted through with hurt and rage. A powerful Gary Holcombe plays Wing Biddlebaum, a schoolteacher whose will is broken after a student falsely accuses him of improprieties. Instead of one day achieving the kind of false “closure” we’ve come to expect in narratives of victimhood, Wing just keeps on keeping on, hopeless and ravaged. The story of jilted Alice Hindman (the marvelous Nancy Anderson) also stings. At its climax, when lonely Alice is moved to dash out into the rain in nothing but her nightdress, we share the terrible exhilaration of a numbed soul grateful to feel anything.

Hope shines in other stories here, but it’s romantic and swooning, just a trick of the moonlight. The love affairs of Winesburg citizens never work out to long-term happiness. Instead, they’re just grist for deathbed reminiscences.

Rosen boldly holds true to Anderson’s fear of modern society’s isolating effects. But outside of the Hindman and Biddlebaum episodes, this Winesburg is never unsettling. It’s stripped of the misanthropy and violence — both emotional and physical — that beat through Anderson’s stories. Dreary scenes of Elizabeth Willard (Leslie Denniston) singing from her deathbed might have snapped more if Rosen had included her plot to stab the husband she hated with a pair of scissors.

The sex is purged, too. Young George Willard (Geoff Packard), the teenage newspaper reporter who slowly emerges as the protagonist in Anderson’s original, is presented here as the hero from the start, which is a problem considering that Rosen has cut his most revealing adventures. His early dalliance with a local fallen woman is gone, as is the beating he takes for kissing another guy’s girl. Worse, the great story “The Strength of God,” about a priest who peeps on an undressed woman, is told without sensuality or convincing spiritual crisis. Paced for laughs, it’s reduced to a Playboy party joke, one that — confoundingly, prudishly — climaxes with that undressed woman buttoned up to the neck.

For all these complaints, there’s much to like. Janice Pytel’s costumes are detailed but unfussy, suggesting the entire lives of these characters. The late Molly Jessup served as musical director, and the sharp and delicate performance of the stellar band is a fitting tribute to her career. The banjo and fiddle underscoring redeem some uninspired scenes. Still, for all its principled reserve — unrhymed lyrics, spare folk forms, themes instead of choruses — the show still presents a clutch of literature’s most inarticulate characters singing emotions that they wouldn’t begin to comprehend in Anderson’s treatment. The result is a sometimes beautiful mess: short stories, some full-formed and some half-baked, grafted onto a young man’s journey toward being interesting.

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Categories: A&E, Stage