‘Knoxville’ an emotional reflection on what matters most

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After hundreds of creative visions and revisions, a pandemic-induced two-year delay and a plethora of fanfare over the highly anticipated reunion of the artistic team that produced the Tony Award-winning ‘Ragtime’, the new comedy musical “Knoxville” had its long-awaited official world premiere at the Asolo Repertory Theater on Saturday night.

This kind of accumulation can create dangerously high expectations. And those who go to “Knoxville” anticipating a convoluted plot, rousing dance numbers, or tightly-wrapped moral will inevitably find this quietly-toned poem from a production to be much ado about nothing.

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Or you might, as this reviewer did, find it to be an eloquent emotional reflection on what matters most in our lives – the bonds of faith, family and love that sustain us even in the face of our certain but unpredictable deaths. This performance of less than two hours, without intermission, felt like a poem, a love song, an anthem and an elegy all rolled into one.

Like “A Death in the Family,” the James Agee novel that is its source – edited and published after the author’s untimely death left it unfinished – director Frank Galati’s book isn’t perfect. Despite its long genesis, some adjustments would still be necessary to deepen our understanding and our attachment to its characters. But the cast’s voices and performances are outstanding; the music (by Stephen Flaherty) and lyrics (by Lynn Ahrens) emotionally capture the lyricism of Agee’s language; and technical aspects, from diverse lighting (Donald Holder) to clever but cluttered stage design (Robert Perdziola) combine to create a memorable and moving theatrical experience.

The musical opens in the dark, with the noise of city traffic and someone hitting the keys of a manual typewriter. It’s 1955 and the adult Agee (Jason Danieley), lit by a single beam of light, is in his New York studio, working on what he hopes will be his greatest achievement – a novel capturing loss. of her father at the age of 6 and the effect the tragedy had on her mother, her loved ones and her future.

Paul Alexander Nolan and Jack Casey in "Knoxville" at Asolo Rep.

As if traveling through the author’s memory, we are quickly transported to Knoxville, Tennessee, where the grown-up Agee becomes a shadowy observer of the events that unfolded in the summer of 1915. He gazes upon his younger self , Rufus Follett (Jack Casey) engages with his gregarious and loving father, Jay (Paul Alexander Nolan), with his devout and devoted mother, Mary (Hannah Elless), and with his loving aunt Hannah (Ellen Harvey). fun and supportive, who “made me feel like someone”.

As the action unfolds on the fateful day that changed Agee’s young life – despite the telling title, if you haven’t read the book I hesitate to say much more – we are introduced to the members of the extended family, who highlight their own weaknesses and flaws, such as Jay’s alcoholic and resentful brother, Ralph (Joel Waggoner) and his greedy wife, Sally (Sarah Aili). The more tangential roles, like paternal and maternal grandparents and Andrew (Nathan Salstone) and Victoria (Abigail Stephenson) – cousins, I think? – inevitably lack the depth of development of the principals, but the actors are faultless in their execution of the often haunting and expressive melodies of Flaherty and Ahren.

The cast of dans "Knoxville" at Asolo Rep.

Also moving on stage is a sextet of actors/musicians, who contribute to a captivating soundscape on instruments ranging from mandolin and cello to clarinet and glockenspiel. Alongside the simple sets – door frames, tables and chairs, shop windows – moved to create shifts in time and space, which are set against a busy backdrop of twinkling stars and a swooping arch, the scene can sometimes seem overcrowded. and overloaded despite smooth transitions.

Flaherty and Ahrens only solidify their reputation as one of the best teams creating music for the stage. Even when they write about mundane things like a broken car part (“A Cotter Pin”) or a shopping trip (“Life Is In a Store”), the melodies are enchanting and the lyrics genuine and unforced. When they enter the realm of the characters’ inner life, the effect can be overwhelming.

The climactic moment that gives the novel its title is handled subtly but effectively, with dramatic lighting and a huge swath of puffy opaque material. In its aftermath, we see the repercussions on every member of the family, from the grieving, pious widow, who gets drunk and breaks into hysterical, disorderly laughter, to the confused but curious son, who wonders if he is now.” orphan”. The adult Agee and the deceased father both appear in effective blends of past and present, such as when Danieley and Nolan perform a spirited dance on their way to a saloon (choreography by Josh Rhodes) or the adult Agee rushes to embrace her father with the desperate attachment of a child.

As in life, there is no complete closure, no orderly summation; there are questions and doubts that linger and words that will forever go unsaid. As Jay sings in “That’s What I Believe,” we’re all “doing our best.” And during this time, at the end of the play, “we meet our descendants going up and down the stairs”.

But the moving, self-titled finale reminds us that “home is where you start.” All the rest of our transient lives evolve from this heart connection. At the end of “Knoxville,” we are left with both a sense of loss and nostalgia, as well as a deep appreciation and gratitude for what we should hold most dear. Contact Carrie Seidman at [email protected] or 505-238-0392.

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