By John Quinn
: Review: ‘Winesburg, Ohio’
Chicago salutes pride with musical update of American classic
The advice to budding writers has become a clich – write what you know. Young George Willard eventually does just that. He writes sketches of the citizens of his Ohio hometown and dreams of leaving backwater Winesburg for the bright lights of Chicago.
What a rare bunch of neighbors he has! Through George, hero of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic, “Winesburg, Ohio,” we meet the gifted former teacher, his life ruined by a homoerotic fantasy; the up-tight minister with suppressed lust for the local “school marm;” the old maid who was loved, then left alone.
Anderson paints a bleak picture of small town America, where “Each had their secret and lived it as if it were true.” Should we be surprised that Willard bares a resemblance to Anderson, or that Winesburg is a stand-in for Clyde, Ohio, his hometown?
About Face Theatre, Chicago’s award-winning LGBT company, brings to the stage a musical adaptation of Anderson’s book. Produced in association with Steppenwolf Theatre, this new version of “Winesburg, Ohio” is a summer salute to the writer who broke ground in a frank examination of gender roles and identity.
Mounted in the airy black box that is Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, “Winesburg” is a big show, filling a multilevel set stretched across two sides of the square playing area.
The striking voices of this talented cast are backed by on-stage musicians, most notably guitarist Chris Walz, whose nimble fingers underscore much of the action. Although the Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman score is inspired by traditional American music, it owes much of its power to the flowing lyricism found in favorites like “Les Miserables.”
The production is expertly cast and masterfully directed by Jessica Thebus. Of special note in the cast is audience favorite Jeff Dumas as Joe Welling, “A Man Of Ideas,” whose single mindedness turns around the hapless Winesburg baseball team.
It’s not all smooth sailing, though. This is the newly expanded version of a one act, originally commissioned by Steppenwolf Theatre for its Arts Exchange Program. Perhaps the “work in progress” label can excuse some of the forced lyrics and lines that leave us asking, “Where did THAT come from?” But, then, it might only show too strict an adherence to Anderson’s prose. It might also explain why the creators chose to omit a closing number as George Willard is sent to the big city by words, but not by music.
If the superficial fluff available on network television has tempered your idea of summer entertainment, “Winesburg, Ohio” is not your show. There is an undercurrent of loneliness at its heart that disturbs while it entertains. It is a moving, evocative piece – sad, even a little brooding, staying close to the original novel. Anderson’s pessimism about life in the dying heartland of America resonates in the 21st century, but provides little in the way of resolution except a recurring theme of, “Get out while the going’s good.”
“Winesburg, Ohio” Staged Wednesday through Sunday by About Face Theatre at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, Chicago, through July 18. Closed July 4. Tickets: $20 – $35. 312-335-1650. www.steppenwolf.org.
The Bottom Line: This musical tribute to an American classic might leave you a little sad, but never bored.