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Reviewed by:
  • Winesburg, Ohio
  • Bryan M. Vandevender
Winesburg, Ohio. Book and lyrics by Eric Rosen. Music and additional lyrics by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman. Conceived and developed in collaboration with Jessica Thebus. Directed by Eric Rosen. Kansas City Repertory Theatre. 22 March 2009.

Literary scholars have long lauded Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio not only as an exemplar of modernist fiction, but also as one of the best American novels of the early twentieth century. First published in 1919, the slim volume garnered attention and praise for eschewing a linear narrative in favor of twenty-two brief character sketches that reveal the inner lives of the fictional town’s citizenry—their suppressed desires and quiet desperations. This approach to storytelling was both innovative and timely, as it reflected the nation’s fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis and the modernist movement’s belief in radical individualism. While the literati of the period tended to celebrate the book, a handful of notable critics dissented, claiming that its fragmented form, lyrical prose, and taciturn tone were more burdensome than beneficial, and that pinpointing the novel’s weaknesses was an easier task than enumerating its many merits.

The same could be said of Eric Rosen’s musical adaptation of the novel, most recently mounted by the Kansas City Rep. The musical offers a colorful portrait of Midwestern life and a thoughtful translation of Anderson’s book from narrative to dramatic form; however, its shortcomings tend to eclipse its virtues and the source material is largely to blame. [End Page 477] Anderson’s stories are decidedly short. The descriptions that they contain are thicker and more detailed than their plots. Moreover, the novel is a collection of isolated and sometimes wholly unrelated episodes. These modernist narrative techniques may have worked well on the page but prove somewhat problematic when forced into the form of a traditional book musical. This is not to say that all musicals require linear storytelling. Shows like Stephen Sondheim’s Company and Assassins have successfully married otherwise disconnected characters and scenes through the use of a unifying agent—a dominant theme, a stable, central character or infectious score. Winesburg, Ohio contains all three of these devices, but none of them are strong enough to support the needs of a successful musical.

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Geoff Packard (George Willard) and James Judy (The Writer) in Winesburg, Ohio. (Photo: Don Ipock.)

Of the thirteen characters featured in the musical, each harbors an illicit desire, private shame, or sadness over dreams deferred. Wing Biddlebaum, a former schoolteacher, lives in self-imposed exile after a student accuses him of impropriety. The guilt and humiliation he hides cause his hands to shake erratically. After being abandoned by her lover, Alice Hindman’s desire for love and adventure drives her to dance naked in a rainstorm. Schoolteacher Kate Swift, coveted by the Reverend Curtis Hartman, longs for former student George Willard. These characters gather with the rest of the ensemble for the musical’s opening number and assert that their respective secrets have left them emotionally damaged or grotesque. In addition to starting the musical on a decidedly dour note, the central theme of grotesqueness fails to align the characters effectively. The secrets in question range from the scandalous to the strange to the relatively innocuous and tend to highlight differences among the townsfolk rather than reveal their sameness. Also troubling is the fact that many characters’ participation in the libretto is limited to a single song and short introduction from The Writer, the musical’s enigmatic narrator. Once their story has been told, the characters disappear for long intervals and only re-appear to facilitate transitional scenes and the final choral number. This absence, while conspicuous, is born out of utility as the musical calls for actors to play multiple parts. However, with little overlap between stories and infrequent interaction between characters, it is difficult to determine what the townsfolk share aside from their secrets and a common address.

The musical’s central character is fledgling journalist George Willard, who spends his time collecting stories for the local newspaper. But unlike Company’s Bobby, he is not a central figure in every...


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pp. 477-479
Launched on MUSE
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