Good things come to those who wait. For Asolo Rep audiences, the wait for the world premiere of the musical Knoxville (based on James Agee’s A Death in the Family) has been a long one, since it was due to bow just before the pandemic shut down theaters. Now, finally, it’s onstage, and well worth the anticipation.
The show has something of a dream team behind it: adapter-director 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 early death, in the 1950s, was not exactly the version he himself had envisioned. (It was republished many years later with revisions to more closely resemble his original.) Nevertheless, it inspired the first stage adaptation, All the Way Home, which also became a film (as well as a song title for Knoxville). Obviously, something about the work resonates with audiences.
From the first moments of Knoxville, we are caught up in the pathos, love, loss, humor and poignancy of Agee’s story. The play opens with a prologue set in New York City in the 1950s, where the “Author” (James Danieley) is struggling to put down his memories at a typewriter. Frustrated, he soon flashes back to his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915, when his early self, Rufus Follett (Jack Casey), was just a boy of 6, one admiring of 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’s soon to have. A phone call from Jay’s alcoholic undertaker brother Ralph (Joel Waggoner) in the middle of the night sets Jay off on a fateful road trip that will forever alter the lives of Rufus, Mary and others in Jay’s orbit.
You know a show is working when it just seems obvious and natural that it would come out exactly as you see it onstage (oblivious of all the hard work and countless decisions that created it). When set to Flaherty’s music, Knoxville is like that. The songs, offering a range of folk, country and bluesy sounds, feel immediately familiar even if you’ve never heard them before. One crucial song, “Outside Your Window,” instantly fastened itself into my head more than two years ago when I heard it at a preview; hearing it again was like returning to an old favorite. In the actual production, it’s sung by Jay, the Author and the males of the cast, as Jay prepares to take that middle-of-the-night trip, and it’s both stirring and haunting.
Another number, “Life Is In a Store,” takes Rufus out for a day of shopping with his Aunt Hannah (Ellen Harvey), starchy on the outside but much beloved; it’s upbeat and provides the first real chance for choreographer Josh Rhodes’ work here to shine. Another song later in the show (which runs just one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission) features Ralph’s unhappy wife Sally as she prepares for a funeral; “Black Dress” is country/rock radio-ready, and Sarah Aili delivers it with heart and soul.
Ahrens’ lyrics can be somber 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 performances of them. Her connections with Nolan as Jay, and the precociously talented Casey as Rufus, feel genuine. And Danieley and Nolan have moments together that drive to the heart of the matter, adroitly staged. The supporting cast, especially Barbara Marineau and William Parry as Mary’s parents and Nathan Salstone as her brother, are all absolutely up to the mark.
Knoxville is frequently suffused by a warm glow, suitable to a memory play, thanks to designer Donald Holder. Robert Perdziola’s scenic and costume designs fit the moods and period evocatively, summoning up the way these people really lived more than 100 years ago. Orchestrator Bruce Coughlin and music director Caleb Hoyer do yeoman’s work here, as do the musicians (some of whom are also cast members) in the band, made up of instruments like guitar, cello, violin and even egg shaker.
As old-style promo show posters might have said, Knoxville will make you cry. It will make you laugh. It will make you care. And it deserves to have a long life in future productions.
Knoxville continues through May 11 at Asolo Rep; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.