For “The Glass Menagerie” MTH Sets an American Classic to a Soulful Live Jazz Score

A young woman leans her chin on a table, looking at a glass unicorn. A beautiful Black woman can be seen behind her singing jazz

Ayana Tribbit and Erdin Schultz-Bever in The Glass Menagerie (Cory Weaver)

In the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie, the narrator—a present-day version of our protagonist, Tom (played by Brian Paulette)—reminisces about his youth while commenting on the very nature of reminiscing. “The play is a memory,” he tells us. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”

Music Theater Heritage Artistic Director Tim Scott has taken that notion and run with it, setting the play to a live improvised jazz score and weaving incidental performances of popular songs of the time throughout. This creative framework is a fascinating addition. It does strip the show of some degree of its intimacy and the claustrophobia inherent in Tennessee Williams’ script, since the typically unseen dance hall referenced to be across the alley from the Wingfield family’s cramped apartment now serves now serves as its expansive backdrop, but the concept offers plenty in return.

Williams’ play is generally considered to be semi-autobiographical, centering on 20-something Tom (R.H. Wilhoit), a writer and adventure-seeker desperate to flee his sad life working in a shoe factory to care for his histrionic mother Amanda (Manon Halliburton) and debilitatingly shy sister Laura (Erdin Schultz-Bever). The play shows us small domestic moments between the characters as a means to explore their deep emotional lives. Tom struggles with the idea of an unlived life; Amanda longs to return to her youthful heyday; Laura reels with anxiety over being perceived by others.

Ryan Bernsten and R.H. Wilhoit in “The Glass Menagerie” (Cory Weaver)

Scott’s conceptual changes alter some elements of Williams’ original play but they do not necessarily detract from it. The dance hall exudes excitement, lust, and dark glamour. By featuring it so prominently, it serves as the living embodiment of the kind of life Tom dreams of having.  Moreover, the exceptional accompaniment provided by Music Director Desmond Mason on piano and Nsikoh on bass mirrors the action, picking up on the tension, pain, sadness, and every bit of conflict between the characters and fueling it in return, an outside force driving that conflict even harder. The song choices work best when they’re not a direct on-the-nose reflection of the characters’ states (the ironic placement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” was a personal favorite) but the music, especially with Ayana Tribitt’s lush vocals, is sublime throughout.

The technical elements at play here are on-point, especially Michelle Harvey’s luxurious lighting, draping the jazz band in deep pinks and blues while also casting them in shadows, obscuring their faces, and making the richness of that life feel darkly mysterious and out of reach, in heartrending contrast with its prominence onstage.

The entire cast (which also includes Ryan Bernsten as Jim) brings Tenessee Williams’ characters to life with adeptness but Wilhoit deserves special praise for his exceptional performance as Tom. Tom is a man pushed to his limits, frantic in his attempts to hold onto any remaining shred of desperate patience with his circumstances and especially with his mother—more for his own sanity than for the sake of Amanda’s feelings. But throughout it all, Wilhoit mines every bit of comedy in William’s script, which, it’s often forgotten, is a lot. The Glass Menagerie is filled with pain and longing, but it’s also a deeply funny play. Casting Wilhoit, a brilliant comedic and physical actor in the central role ensures that comedy, along with the pain, is given the attention it deserves.

“The Glass Menagerie” runs through March 17 at Music Theater Heritage at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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