Asolo Rep’s Knoxville is well worth the long wait
Good things come to those who wait. For the public of Asolo Rep, the expectation of the world premiere of the musical Knoxville (from James Agee A death in the family) was long, since she had to bow just before the pandemic closed the cinemas. Now, finally, it’s on stage, and it’s well worth the anticipation.
The show has something of a dream team behind it: director-adaptor Frank Galati, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who combined their talents so successfully on Broadway’s Tony-winning Ragtime. But great talent behind the scenes is never an absolute guarantee of success. And Agee’s largely autobiographical book is somewhat problematic to bring to life: the Pulitzer Prize-winning version published after his untimely death, in the 1950s, was not exactly the version he himself envisioned. . (It was republished several years later with revisions to more closely resemble its original.) Nonetheless, it inspired the first stage adaptation, All the way backwhich also became a movie (as well as a song title for Knoxville). Obviously, something in the work resonates with the audience.
From the first moments of Knoxville, we are caught up in the pathos, love, loss, humor and emotion of Agee’s story. The play opens with a prologue set in 1950s New York, where the “author” (James Danieley) struggles to put his memories on a typewriter. Frustrated, he soon returns to his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915, when his first self, Rufus Follett (Jack Casey), was just a 6-year-old boy, admiring his father Jay (Paul Alexander Nolan) and surrounded by the warmth of family and friends.
But Jay has his demons, a tendency to drink among them. And as an agnostic, his beliefs sometimes clash with those of his Anglo-Catholic wife Mary (Hannah Elless), even though they love each other, Rufus and the baby she is soon to have. A phone call from Jay’s alcoholic brother Ralph (Joel Waggoner) in the middle of the night sets Jay off on a fateful road trip that will forever change the lives of Rufus, Mary and others in Jay’s orbit.
You know a show works when it feels obvious and natural that it’s going exactly as you see it on stage (not to mention all the hard work and countless decisions that went into creating it). When set to music by Flaherty, Knoxville is like that. The songs, offering a range of folk, country and bluesy sounds, sound instantly familiar even if you’ve never heard them before. A pivotal song, “Outside Your Window,” instantly stuck in my head over two years ago when I heard it at a premiere; hearing it again was like going back to an old favorite. In the actual production, it’s sung by Jay, the writer, and the cast men as Jay prepares to take that journey in the middle of the night, and it’s both moving and haunting.
Another issue, “Life is in a Store,” takes Rufus out for a day of shopping with his starchy-out-of-home but much-loved Aunt Hannah (Ellen Harvey); it’s upbeat and offers the first real chance for choreographer Josh Rhodes’ work to shine here. Another song later in the show (which is only an hour and 40 minutes long with no intermission) features Ralph’s unfortunate wife, Sally, as she prepares for a funeral; “Black Dress” is ready for country/rock radio, and Sarah Aili delivers it with heart and soul.
Ahrens’ lyrics can be dark or humorous, depending on the scene and the emotions required. Some of the most touching are placed in the mouth of Elless as Mary, with “Ordinary Goodbye” and “In His Strength”, and Elless is powerful in her interpretations. His relationships with Nolan as Jay and the precociously talented Casey as Rufus seem genuine. And Danieley and Nolan have moments together that get to the heart of the matter, skillfully brought to life. The supporting cast, especially Barbara Marineau and William Parry as Mary’s parents and Nathan Salstone as her brother, are all absolutely on point.
Knoxville is often bathed in a warm glow, conducive to a game of memory, thanks to designer Donald Holder. Robert Perdziola’s stage and costume designs match the moods and time period in an evocative way, evoking how these people actually lived over 100 years ago. Orchestrator Bruce Coughlin and musical director Caleb Hoyer do yeoman’s work here, as do the musicians (some of whom are also cast members) of the band, made up of instruments like guitar, cello, violin and even the shaker.
As old promotional show posters might have said, Knoxville will make you cry. It will make you laugh. It will make you take care. And it deserves to have a long life in future productions.
Knoxville continues until May 11 at Asolo Rep; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.