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Although the new musical trying out Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre is called A COMPLICATED WOMAN, it could just as easily be titled A COMPLICATED MAN.

That sounds complicated, too, doesn’t it? The explanation, though, is that the baby born to the Kenleys in 1906 had both male and female organs.

Says Jeff Calhoun, who’s directing and choreographing the new musical in Chester, Connecticut, “He was John Kenley half the year when he was producing shows, and Jean Kenley the rest of the year when he wasn’t.”

John, from 1940 to 1995, mounted 538 productions mostly in Ohio. First, he signed many famed stars of stage (Ethel Merman: CALL ME MADAM), screen (Betty Grable: HELLO, DOLLY!), and small screen (Barbara Eden: FINIAN’S RAINBOW).

Then he brought them to cities large (Columbus), middle-sized (Dayton), and small (Warren). In the 1960s alone, Kenley made sure that 154 musicals and comedies played in theaters that often had around 2,000 seats.

Original cast album aficionados can imagine the fun that Buckeye State audiences had back in 1972 when Molly Picon reprised her role as a traveling widow in MILK AND HONEY. Picon was an inveterate autograph signer, so she didn’t mind Kenley’s demand that all the headliners would repair to the lobby after a show and put their signatures on any program or piece of paper that any theatergoers would want. A Kenley show was a gift that kept on giving.

Joel Grey, in between winning a Tony in CABARET in 1967 – and an Oscar for the same role in 1973 – brought his Emcee to Kenley in 1970. He returned a year later to reprise his Tony-nominated performance in GEORGE M. So, when Grey sang George M. Cohan’s “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway,” he was nearly 45,000 minutes from The Street.

That Grey returned suggests that he must have been at least reasonably happy with the experience, audience and, of course, the money. Calhoun recalls that in 1976, when Henry Winkler was the nation’s rage in HAPPY DAYS, Kenley gave him $20,000 for the week to perform in the vintage comedy ROOM SERVICE. That’s $110,000 in today’s money.

(Calhoun also isn’t above admitting that he stood in line after the show to get Winkler’s autograph.)

Kenley’s audiences saw Juanita Hall return to her role as her Bloody Mary in SOUTH PACIFIC in 1957, shortly after she had put her performance on film. Those in attendance got to hear Hall sing for real – she was inexplicably dubbed in the movie – and could clearly see her Bloody Mary without those bloody color filters that director Joshua Logan imposed on the film that ruined it for everyone.

Patricia Morison, the original Lilli Vanessi in the 1948 Broadway premiere of KISS ME, KATE, reprised her role for Kenley ten years later. What’s surprising is that Morison re-reprised it in 1974 when she was 59 years old. But those large theaters kept many from finding a problem.

During the early 1960s, Music Theater of Lincoln Center was established under Richard Rodgers’ watch. For a few years, New York audiences saw sumptuous revivals at the State Theatre (now the Koch): SOUTH PACIFIC with Florence Henderson, CAROUSEL with John Raitt, and THE MERRY WIDOW with Patrice Munsel. However, Kenley audiences saw them a year or even years before they came east and entered the recording studios.

Henderson’s Nellie Forbush predated her Carol Brady by two years. She once told me what so many others who had abandoned Broadway had detailed: TV money was great, but, oh, not performing in more Broadway musicals was sad, too. You don’t have to be a BRADY BUNCH fan to appreciate how wonderful Henderson was in SOUTH PACIFIC. On this revival cast album – as well as on the original cast recordings of FANNY and THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER (in which she played the title characters), her soprano is super.

As much fun as it might be to see some of these stars replicated on stage in A COMPLICATED WOMAN, Calhoun says none will be on stage “although some show up in lyrics.”

Complications could arise there, too. After all, what rhymes with “Uggams”? But Leslie Uggams too joined the Kenley brigade 13 years after she’d won her Tony for HALLELUJAH, BABY!; she appeared in a 1980 production of SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM. Whether or not Uggams sang “Too Many Mornings” in the show, she might well have hummed it under her breath when she – like all the others – had to be in the rehearsal room by 10 a.m. and stay there for most of the next eight hours. Everything had to be learned and set in a single week, after which opening night suddenly occurred.

The Kenley Players, as the organization was officially called, came to an end in 1995 with THE MITZI GAYNOR SHOW. Yet the memories live on Dayton. Marion’s Piazza, a subs-and-pizza place, still has its walls covered with black-and-white photos of the Kenley cast parties that it once hosted. There’s Karen Morrow in THE MOST HAPPY FELLA… Jane Powell as Eliza Doolittle… and Cloris Leachman in WONDERFUL TOWN.

(Wouldn’t you love to have heard those audiences in Columbus, Dayton, and Warren react to the WONDERFUL TOWN song that begins “Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, why did I ever leave Ohio?”)

Dean Jones, whose voice we all know from COMPANY, tuned up for that landmark musical in 1969 by appearing in the almost eponymous HOW NOW, DOW JONES. As for Shirley Jones, there’s a picture of her too at Marion’s from her stint in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER.

Calhoun would like us to see Kenley’s name forever. He’s still grateful that at the tender age of 16, the impresario gave him his first professional job and got him on the road to earning his Equity card “by dancing with Ann Miller in ANYTHING GOES.” He wound up spending three summers and did nine shows for Kenley.

That’s not as extensive a Kenley resume as so many others had. (Paul Lynde, who you can hear as the original Mr. McAfee in BYE BYE BIRDIE, did nine shows there.) But Calhoun was the only one who made an oath to Kenley that he’s finally kept.

“I promised John at his 90th birthday party that I would tell his story,” he says. Kenley was obviously interested, for the next day, he went to where Calhoun lived and dropped off his memoir.

That was 28 years ago. And though Kenley lived an astonishing 13 more years until the age of 103, sad to say he didn’t live long enough to see A COMPLICATED WOMAN. We, however, still have the chance to see the show, hear the songs that he heard nightly and revisit the stars who sang them. There’s nothing complicated in that.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.