I love that Sarasota has the potential to be a pre-Broadway hub, and Asolo Repertory’s latest musical “Knoxville” by the award-winning creators of “Ragtime,” one of the finest musicals of all time, has found its way to Sarasota as an incubator. The powerhouse trio includes Frank Galati, writer and director, who lives in Sarasota, and Lynn Ahrens, lyricist, and Stephen Flaherty, composer, have been lured to our fabulous community to develop “Knoxville.” The Asolo’s brilliant staging of “Ragtime” in 2018 rivaled the original Broadway production. The theatre lovingly nurtures its shows, and the intimate staging emphasizing evoking emotions over spectacle has become its trademark under the careful eye of Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards.
There is much to recommend the latest collaboration of the “Ragtime” creators, and Ahrens’ beautifully written songs and Flaherty’s sweeping orchestration harken back to old school musicals. However, the source material does not pack the emotional punch of the intertwining love stories and the dream of social justice that made “Ragtime” so moving and poignant.
My favorite scenes revolved around Jay Follet (Paul Alexander Nolan), a loving family man, who subverted his wanderlust to please his conservative Catholic wife, Mary (Hannah Elless). Jay takes his son Rufus (understudy Willa Carpenter) on a nighttime stroll after checking out a Charlie Chaplin picture, and sings a charming song called “Father to Son” about the life Rufus has ahead of him. You can sense a bit of foreboding although Jay seems perfectly content and a bit whimsical. Later, in a series of three songs, Jay goes on a life-altering road trip. First, he shares a somber duet with the Ferryman, played by showstopper Dwelvan David. This is reminiscent of the ferryman in Siddhartha from whom the young prince learns to savor the journey. Then, in an emotionally realized scene called “Lunchroom of the Night,” Jay lets his demons catch up with him, and the choreography showcases Nolan’s grace and masculinity as he explores his darker side.
Nolan and Eless have great chemistry, especially during an imagined love scene late in the show. Eless also gives riveting performances in two solos, “Ordinary Goodbye” and “In His Strength.” The show needed a few more songs and greater exploration of the relationship between Mary and Jay. Much is made that he is agnostic, and she is religious; but it is not clear why this is so significant and how their love transcended what we are made to understand was a major difference in their worldviews.
I’m in favor of the idea of retail therapy, and it was enjoyable to see that shopping was conceived as a great pastime even at the turn-of-the-century in the endearing song “Life is in a Store.” Ellen Harvey brought so much verve and charisma to the seemingly stodgy Aunt Hannah who was apparently a closet shopaholic. Her interaction with Rufus was adorable, but this scene lacked a major payoff other than young Rufus scoring a cool hat from the excursion.
The one hour and forty-seven-minute production went on without an intermission, and I was waiting for the stories to come together and transport the audience to the catharsis that a great musical can achieve. There was a lot of gorgeous build up with a first-rate ensemble of actors whose tapestry of tremendous voices brought out the nuance of the lovely lyrics.
After two years of COVID, I eagerly soak up every theater experience like a thirsty traveler in a desert. The selection of “Knoxville,” another turn-of-the-century tale, worked as a nice bookend to “Our Town” from the beginning of the Asolo season. Much like “Our Town,” the characters of “Knoxville” reside in a world of simplicity, which, in this case, made it feel very time-bound. As we grapple with some of the most challenging circumstances of our generation, including a worldwide pandemic, a potentially fading democracy, a large-scale war, and looming challenges to our civil rights, the show would have been strengthened by exploring the timeless themes of love and community and transcending the era in which it was set. I think with some tinkering, the show, with its world-class pedigree, has the potential to soar.