Asolo Repertory Theatre has announced the casting for its world premiere musical production, Knoxville, which opens in previews April 15 on the mainstage after being delayed from a previous season due to Covid-19.
The new work, based on the posthumous autobiographical novel A Death in the Family by James Agee, is directed by Frank Galati, who also adapted the script. The musical is a collaboration with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who also worked with Galati on the Tony-winning Broadway production of Ragtime.
(You can read more about the creative team behind Knoxville in the story below, which ran in our April 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine in advance of the earlier scheduled show. The production now has its official opening on April 23 to run through May 11.)
The cast includes several Broadway veterans. Playing the author, James Agee, is Jason Danieley, who originated roles on Broadway in Pretty Woman, The Visit, Curtains and The Full Monty and also starred in Chicago, Next to Normal and Candide.
Playing the role of Mary Follett, the Agee/Rufus Follett character’s widowed mother, will be Hannah Elless, who starred on Broadway as Margo Crawford in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s musical Bright Star and most recently originated the role of Jess in Jack Thorne’s Broadway adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Her film and TV credits include The Deuce and Glee.
Mary’s husband, Jay, will be played by Paul Alexander Nolan, who spent six years at the Stratford Festival in Canada before transferring to New York, where he has led seven Broadway shows: Jesus Christ Superstar, Once, Doctor Zhivago, Bright Star, Chicago, Escape to Margaritaville and Slave Play.
Ellen Harvey, who has appeared on Broadway in Present Laughter, How to Succeed in Business...,The Phantom of the Opera, The Music Man and Thou Shalt Not, is in the cast as Aunt Hannah Lynch. Nathan Salstone (Andrew Lynch) was part of the original cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway and appeared in the first national tour of Hadestown.
The cast also includes Sara Aili, Natalie Venetia Belcon, Dwelvan David, Jack Casey (as the young boy Rufus Follett), Barbara Marineau, William Parry, Abigail Stephenson, Joel Waggoner, Scott Wakefield, Alan Chandler, Sade Crosby, Ian Johnston, Patricia M. Lawrence and Sharon Pearlman.
Tickets are available at the Asolo Rep box office, by phone at (941) 351-8000 or online at asolorep.org.
Here's the story behind the story....
Tony Award winner Frank Galati, who directed Broadway’s Ragtime and adapted The Grapes of Wrath for the stage, has been drawn for decades to James Agee’s semiautobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which revolves around a family in 1915 Knoxville, Tennessee, and the tragic loss of a young father.
Galati first read the novel in college and then became familiar with Tad Mosel’s play version, All the Way Home. “It was very moving, very real, and it struck me deeply,” he says. “At that age, and continuing on, one is constantly faced with life’s most profound questions—death, loss, pain, addiction. You reflect on those with this story.”
Soon, Galati will see a longtime dream come true when Asolo Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of his adaptation of Agee and Mosel’s works, Knoxville. He’s thrilled to be working on the creation of this musical piece with old friends Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, with whom he worked years ago on Ragtime. The duo, known for other hits as well, including Once on This Island, Seussical and Anastasia, are writing the music and lyrics, respectively.
“Five or six years ago, I did a draft, with no expectation of production,” says Galati. “I discovered the original manuscript was kind of a mess; it was never published in Agee’s lifetime, and there were all sorts of flashbacks and changes of tense and points of view that made it a challenge. I came to admire what Tad Mosel did with his adaptation.” But Galati made some other choices of “what to extract from the novel and bring to the stage,” eventually condensing the action.
Galati showed his draft to an actress friend, who told him, “It’s really moving, the characters are vivid, but it doesn’t feel like a full meal.” “I understood what she meant,” he says. “So much of the life here is interior, inside the minds of the characters. That can be hard to dramatize. I thought maybe song could help us gain access and express those interior lives.”
Enter Flaherty and Ahrens. “On a long shot, because I hadn’t talked to them in a while, I got in touch with my old friends Lynn and Stephen and asked if they would be willing to look at the draft,” Galati says. “They were really moved by it, and they seemed to see as I did the potential for music. The more we got into it, the more we loved it. And there is a marvelous chemistry between Lynn and Stephen.”
The admiration is mutual. “Frank is such an amazing collaborator,” says Flaherty. “This has been a passion project of his for a long time. We realized the music for Knoxville would be the subtext, what the people are not saying in the room. This musical is not on a grand scale, like Ragtime; it’s a hyper-focused chamber piece, with a score that has elements of bluegrass, country and American folk songs. I really want the score to sound like the heart and soul of America.”
Ahrens in her turn was inspired by the language of Agee’s original. “To be honest, I’m so thrilled at working with Frank, I probably would have said yes to anything he was working on,” she says. “But then I became so enthralled with the poetic language in the novel and by the arc of the play. I saw the possibility to find beautiful songs that would make it soar.” And indeed, when she recalls aspects of Agee’s famous prologue, capturing a tender summer night, with sprinklers going, frogs flopping on the grass, and a family sitting on the front porch, “I burst into tears, and it made me want to write a song,” she says.
The three worked both long-distance and together in the same room in New York and during workshops here in Sarasota, where Asolo producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards has also had a long working relationship with Galati. Galati will direct the Asolo show, with choreographer Josh Rhodes also onboard.
While the focus now is on getting Knoxville on the stage at Asolo Rep, “Lynn and Stephen are so successful, it’s bound to have a lot of people interested” for future productions, says Galati. “Nothing would make us happier than to have a wide audience for this show.”