New Musical Tells Story of Theater Impresario John Kenley

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A new musical aims to bring recognition to John Kenley, the legendary theater impresario who entertained Mahoning Valley audiences for two decades with his star-laden productions at Warren’s Packard Music Hall.

“A Complicated Woman” will open May 29 at the Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn. It’s being directed by theater veteran Jeff Calhoun, who calls it the most meaningful and personal project he has ever done.

“He was the first to take Hollywood stars and put them on stage,” Calhoun said in a phone interview. “And he ran the most famous summer stock theaters in the country,” with shows also in Dayton and Columbus. Some of the biggest names of the era appeared at Kenley’s shows in Warren, including Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Betty Grable, Shirley Jones, Paul Lynde, Cyd Charisse, Sandy Duncan and many more.

The new musical reveals the intriguing personal life of Kenley, who was intersex and lived as a man in his professional life – because he got more respect that way – but as a woman named Jean in the offseason.

He was not a transexual but was born with male and female sex organs and raised by his parents as a boy. Despite the difficulty that posed while growing up, Kenley was happy and self-confident, and never an object of pity.

Innovative, influential, respected, occasionally feared and always protective of his actors and crew, Kenley was, by all accounts, happy and quite a character.

Kenley, who grew up in Cleveland, died in 2009 at age 103 at Cleveland Clinic.

“A Complicated Woman” is being produced by Goodspeed Musicals, a professional theater company based in East Haddam, Conn.

Project of a Lifetime

For Calhoun, the musical is the pinnacle production of his career. He described Kenley as a friend and mentor who had a major impact on his career.

Calhoun, 63, says Kenley entrusted him to tell his life story, and it’s a duty he does not take lightly. He’s worked for decades to bring it to fruition.

“It’s the most personal project I’ve ever had,” Calhoun said in a phone interview. “It’s been 28 years in the making, and I’ve lamented that. But we couldn’t have done it 28 years ago because people weren’t ready for it.”

Originally, Calhoun planned to tell the Kenley story as a documentary film. He was prepared to start shooting in the late 1990s but shelved the project at the last minute at the request of Kenley’s family.

Jeff Calhoun

The new musical, Calhoun said, is “a love letter to Mr. Kenley. That’s my intention. This indomitable spirit taught me so much about life and gave me a career.”

Though Kenley underwent surgery to become fully female at age 60, Calhoun always refers to him as “he” because that is how he knew him in life. Kenley maintained his outward appearance as a man even after the surgery.

The new musical tells his story in a way that is respectful and never salacious, Calhoun said. Portions of it are set in Packard Music Hall. “Act 2 opens in Warren, and it talks about the people in Warren,” Calhoun said.

How They Met

Calhoun met Kenley when he was 16 years old, after his mother drove him from their Pittsburgh home to Warren for an audition.

“I got the part, and my life has never been the same since,” he said. Calhoun would go on to appear in many shows as a Kenley Player.

Though rumors of Kenley’s private life – was he gay? Was he a woman? A cross-dresser? Did he lead a double life? – swirled around the theater, Kenley was always respected by the cast and community at large, Calhoun said.

“On his 90th birthday, I asked John if the rumors were true,” Calhoun said. “I’m not even sure if I knew what the rumors were, but he explained that he did spend his winters as Jean.”

Kenley also gave him an account of his life that he had written and asked Calhoun to someday tell his story.

John Kenley. (Photo by Billy Rose | The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Calhoun vowed that he would. To prepare for the task, he went to film school, and later hired a director and a film crew to make the ill-fated documentary.

The idea to tell the Kenley story as a musical arose in 2018, when composer Jonathan Brielle saw a short documentary that Calhoun had finally made. “He called me and said that it would be a great musical,” Calhoun said.

Brielle wrote the music and lyrics for “A Complicated Woman.” Ianne Fields Stewart, a transgender woman, wrote the book. “There is no way a cisgender person could have written this show,” Calhoun said.

As the director and guiding force of the musical, Calhoun said his goal is to make Kenley proud.

The theater poster for “A Complicated Woman.”

“I want him to be laughing and clapping from above,” he said. “I want the world to know of this remarkable man.”

The creative team did take some artistic license in telling the story, including the addition of a fabricated character named Nina Mae.

“It’s not an accurate biography,” Calhoun said. “But I think it’s better than a documentary. You can do more with a musical.”

Nora Brigid Monahan plays both John and Jean Kenley. L Morgan Lee, the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Tony Award (“A Strange Loop”), plays Nina Mae.

The audiences at preview performances have been impressed.

“We had 350 septuagenarians at our first performance,” Calhoun said. “I feared that they would leave in droves, but they loved it. Maybe 15 left the theater at intermission. But the show got a standing ovation. They got it.”

Calhoun said the musical “has its finger on the pulse” of its subject. “It can heal, and it can educate,” he said.

What’s Next?

Calhoun has high hopes for “A Complicated Woman.”

Will he license the show and make performance rights available to community theaters? Will he take the show on the road for a performance in Warren or Youngstown?

Both ideas intrigue Calhoun, but they’ll have to wait, he said.

His overriding goal at this point is for the show to make it to Broadway or elsewhere in the New York theater scene.

“By the time it’s ready to be licensed, community theaters will be ready for it,” Calhoun said. “It’s not controversial, but it is sophisticated. It has subject matter that audiences would never see otherwise. But it’s accessible, and we tell it in an entertaining way.”

Pictured at top: Nora Brigid Monahan, left, as John Kenley, and Danny Rutigliano as Lee Shubert, the Broadway impresario who employed a young Kenley, in a scene from “A Complicated Woman.” (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)