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Theater Review: ‘Complicated Woman’ A Fascinating New Musical



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CHESTER — In the tradition of A Chorus Line, Gypsy, Kiss Me Kate and others, Goodspeed Opera House’s Norma Terris Theater kicked off its 2024 season with a brand new backstage musical, A Complicated Woman, directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.

Based on the book by Ianne Fields Stewart, A Complicated Woman tells the tale of theater impresario John Kenley, who pioneered the idea of using television and movie stars and other pop culture figures in his summer stock theater productions. At his theater in Ohio, you could see Betty White in The King & I, Vincent Price in Oliver! or even Anita Bryant in The Sound of Music (yes, that Anita Bryant).

As theater producer John Kenley, they lived their life as a man. During the months Kenley was not running the theater in Ohio, they lived a secluded life in Florida as Jean Kenley, a woman. Kenley was an intersex individual, living a non-binary life for all of their 103 years.

The show, with music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle, brings to the stage the larger than life Kenley lead. Kenley’s struggle with identity, family and fame provide for a fascinating and entertaining new musical.

With a cast of eight actors, the show is truly the definition of an ensemble piece. There is not one person on that stage who is unimportant, not to mention the amazing level of talent each of them brings to the piece.

Leading the cast is Nora Brigid Monahan as John/Jean Kenley. Their beautiful portrayal of Kenley is a fitting tribute to a theater legend. Monahan brings humor and heart their portrayal of a struggling Kenley. Monahan’s performance of “I Exist!” toward the end of Act Two is a showstopper.

In Florida, Kenley has a best friend, Nina Mae, played by recent Tony Award nominee L. Morgan Lee. Lee brings their incredible voice and skillful acting chops to the role. One of the best moments in the show is the performance of Lee and Monahan’s duet “My Best Friend.”

Other standout performances include Christian Brailsford as Oscar, Nina Mae’s husband. His smooth and silky singing voice is a treat for the ears. This is Brailsford’s first show with Goodspeed, and hopefully not their last.

Klea Blackhurst, a theater legend in her own right, takes on the role of Kenley’s disapproving sister Myrtle. Blackhurst can always be counted on for bringing humor and light to every scene she’s in.

Jeff Calhoun’s simple but effective staging makes a small space such as the Terris seem like a big Broadway stage.

While Terris Theater productions have short runs and A Complicated Woman closed on June 2, hopefully the show will have a larger life beyond Goodspeed. When it does, audiences should catch it wherever they can before it becomes the hot ticket in NYC.

The duet by Jean Kenley (Nora Brigid Monahan) and Nina Mae (L. Morgan Lee) of “My Best Friend” is among the best moments of A Complicated Woman, a new musical that opened the 2024 season at The Terris Theatre. —Diane Sobelewski photo
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