Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

A Complicated Woman
Goodspeed Musicals
Review by Fred Sokol

Nora Brigid Monahan
Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Goodspeed Musicals is presenting A Complicated Woman, new and most promising while in development, at its Terris Theatre through June 2. Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun has long been interested in the life of John Kenley (also known as Jean) and, as one who knew Kenley, Calhoun facilitates an up-tempo, catchy production. Ianne Fields Stewart wrote the book for the show. Jonathan Brielle provides music and lyrics with additional lyrics furnished by Sam Salmond.

Kenley died in 2009 at the age of 103 and was an intersex person. Sarah Kayser, writing in the Goodspeed program for the current show, quotes the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which explains that intersex individuals have sex characteristics which "do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies."

The show begins in New York in 1928 where an ambitious John (Nora Brigid Monahan) will soon meet Lee Shubert (Danny Rutigliano). John gets involved in the theatre scene and sings up a storm with Shubert and company members on "The Man Who Runs the Show." John becomes friends with Nina Mae (L Morgan Lee), who takes advantage of opportunities to elevate her high ranging voice. We also meet John's sister, Myrtle (Klea Blackhurst), who wants the best for her brother, as she really cares about him.

After intermission, it is 1968 and scenes tend to shift between Ohio and Florida. Kenley is now a major producer of summer stock theatre, and scenic designer Tobin Ost showcases this with a huge billboard, perched at an angle, which announces the Kenley Players Summer Season. It will feature Camelot, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Oklahoma!. Kenley's house is in Ohio but he is still involved in theatre elsewhere.

A Complicated Woman scores quite well if one were to figuratively scroll down a checklist of musts for a musical. The plot follows the life of a person who very much wanted to fulfill existence as both a man and woman. That's the throughline, but there's also a nifty subplot featuring Nina Mae and Oscar (Christian Brailsford). Their rendition of "When I Choose You" is simply sweet. The creative team weaves in enough romance to be satisfying and Monahan fully portrays John/Jean's heartfelt emotions amid troublesome conflict.

It is not a light evening of theatre but rather educational and informational. The musical flows swiftly and with pizzazz, featuring one sterling number after another. Ten scenes form the first act and each is a winner. The second hour of the musical is calmer yet revelatory.

Nora Brigid Monahan (with significant credits as both an actor and playwright) is versatile, deft and specific as they personify John/Jean. They fully embody both selves while being right on pitch with vocals. It's a role that requires an actor to literally wear different clothing (thanks to costume designer Phuong Nguyen) and embrace more than one persona. Supporting cast members add necessary texture as the stories unfold. The musical compositions are varied, and musical director Debra Barsha's contribution should not be minimized. Additionally, a few of the actors fuse voices on some lovely harmonies from time to time. Those moments, within the context of the larger plot and its implications, are delightful and cherished.

Calhoun has become a force as he admired Kenley and helms this show. This is a strong production, but its multiple elements and parts have not yet fully congealed to comprise a fully fluent whole. Most of the sequences are exemplary and the entire musical has room to evolve further as it grows. A timely play that focuses on gender identity for someone who lived throughout the twentieth century is now very much appreciated.

A Complicated Woman runs through June 2, 2024, at Goodspeed Musicals, Terris Theatre, 33 N Main St., Chester CT. For tickets and information, please call 860-873-8668 or visit