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‘Loving Repeating,’ a quirky beauty of a musical, celebrates Gertrude Stein

Over the course of just a few years, Kokandy Productions has become a formidable presenter of musicals on an intimate scale, with some shows widely known (“The Full Monty,” “Assassins”), others far less familiar, but all realized with immense sophistication and impressive skill.

Kokandy’s latest effort, and it’s a beauty — is “Loving Repeating,” a quirky, moving tour through the heart and mind of Gertrude Stein. One of the great explorers and linguistic experimenters in early 20th century modernist literature, Stein was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to Paris in 1903, became part of the city’s artistic circle that included Picasso and Hemingway, and remained there until her death in 1946.

Stein, whose pop culture fame came by way of  two often repeated phrases — “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and “There is no there there” —  also wrote winningly of her adoring lesbian partnership with Alice B. Toklas, whose own pop cultural fame came when she published a cookbook containing a recipe for hashish brownies.

‘LOVING REPEATING’

Highly recommended

When: Through Aug. 30

Where: Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $38

Info: http://www.kokandyproductions.com

Run time: 75 minutes, with no intermission

Yes, these ladies were in the vanguard of many things. But it is not their celebrity that animates “Loving Repeating,” the moving, playful, 75-minute musical under the exquisite direction of Allison Hendrix, that is one of several of adapter Frank Galati’s theatrical “dances” with Stein, and has not been revived here since 2006. The show’s text and lyrics are all drawn from Stein’s writing. The score, by Stephen Flaherty (of “Ragtime” fame), is every bit as surprisingly rapturous and imaginative (and repetitive) as the words that animate it.

The cast of "Loving Repeating, a chamber musical featuring the words of Gertrude Stein and music by Stephen Flaherty. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The cast of “Loving Repeating, a chamber musical featuring the words of Gertrude Stein and music by Stephen Flaherty. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

At the fervent but often droll center of “Loving Repeating” is the older Stein (played with great wit, intelligence and gravitas by Carol Buinis). She observes and comments on all that goes on as her youthful incarnation (Amanda Giles, whose lush voice and quiet passion are a fine reminder that Gertrude was not born looking like the iconic late-life photos), explains how her college days spent studying psychology gave way to her far more obsessive interest in human character, and how it can be manifested in language.

The pivotal moment in Stein’s life comes when she meets Toklas (played with just the right subtle sensuality by the golden-voiced Emily Goldberg), and experiences love for the first time. The growth of that love is teasingly (but not prudishly) chronicled from first attraction to sickness and death. So is the relationship between Stein’s fictional lovers, Miss Furr (Sarah Hayes) and Miss Skeene (Stephanie Stockstill), and a trio of female friends that also includes Maisie Rose. All three possess fine voices and distinctive personalities. The relationships among a triangle of gay men (the uniformly excellent George Toles, Andrew Lund and Jake Morrissy) also is touchingly portrayed.

When it comes to her quirky, audacious use of language, Stein displays no false modesty. She proclaims that with “rose is a rose…” she reinvented the language of love poetry that had grown stale over the centuries, and saw to it that people saw “red” with fresh eyes.

The musicians (Danielson at the keyboard, plus Mike Matlock, Kyle McCullough and Desiree Mill), bring a gorgeous orchestral sound to the piece. They are seated beneath Ashley Ann Woods’ clever set (enhanced by Kate Setzer-Kamphausen’s period-perfect costumes), with a long back wall featuring fine reproductions of many of the great modernist paintings Stein collected.

“Loving Repeating” is an exceedingly difficult show to carry off, but Kokandy has captured it perfectly with an ideal mix of clarity, charm, humor and ruefulness.