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A CurtainUp Review
For some of us, the story/history of Storyville will be new, but it was evidently intriguing for composer-musicologist Mildred Kayden who knew what a sporting musical adventure might be spun around the notorious section of New Orleans that met its fate in 1917.
Arguably the birthplace of Jazz, Storyville was the place where those black musicians who primarily played in the many prosperous and well-attended sporting houses were suddenly forced to vacate and travel north carrying with them the sprouting seeds of a new musical genre. Augmented with a (often revised) serviceable book by the renowned African-American playwright Ed Bullins, Storyville takes us back to the infamous red light district known as "Back O' Town" in 1917 up to the point where federal action issued the demolition of this area of around eighteen blocks.
There is a lot of music but also a lot of story behind Storyville , as exemplified by the Marshall a.k.a. Countess Willie Danger (an insinuatingly sardonic Ernestine Jackson) with running narration that begins with "Once upon a time in Storyville. . . " This lets the collaborators off the hook when it comes to melding facts with fiction and interpolating some overly romanticized characters within the reality of political corruption. But this show doesn't pretend or intend to get down to the nitty-gritty of brothel life or the hard-scrabble life of black musicians. It does, however, allude to the power and profiteering of white politicos and how closely aligned they were to the burgeoning music scene.
It doesn't take long after itinerate trumpeter and former prize-fighter Butch "Cobra" Brown" (good-looking and personable Kyle Robert Carter) wanders into town that his trumpet is stolen. Despite some supportive conjuring by Mama Magique (NaTasha Yvette Williams), it takes a while for him to compete with Storyville's most successful band leader and ruler of the music scene Hot Licks Sam (a swaggering Michael Leonard James.) Although he tries to be his own man, he is soon manipulated to abet slimy mobster-Mayor Mickey Mulligan (D.C. Anderson) in his dirty doings. Competition in the romance department comes from a smarmy entrepreneur and drug dealer Baron Fontainebleau (Carl Wallnau) who has offered to take Butch's girl friend glamorous band singer Tigre Savoy (Zakiya Young) to Paris.
I would bet that Storyville has the largest cast ever assembled on the stage of the York Theatre. But under the fast-moving direction of Bill Castellino and the ebullient choreography by Mercedes Ellington, the stage is never uncomfortably jammed, although jamming is a given. The principals, all of whom have big voices and engaging personalities, have plenty of room to shine individually as well as in the ensemble numbers, many featuring a bevy of sexy, just lewd-enough showgirls. Standout among them is Debra Walton, as adorable trouble-maker Fifi Foxy. The risqué costumes designed by Nicole Wee are another standout feature.
Although much of the action takes place in a seedy nightclub with the instrumentalists on a raised platform on the right and the pianist on the left, the scenic design by James Morgan is most notable for being framed by reproductions of the actual photographs of prostitutes taken during the early years of the 20th century by E.J. Bellocq. An exhibit of similar photographs, some quite provocative, is on display in the lobby.
Kayden's ambitious score of about twenty-one songs is a breezy mixture of ballads and blues, rags and marches peppered with a taste of the New Orleans sound. There are hints in the score that will someday define the coming revolution in American music. What we hear, however, are still basically show-tunes. Kayden's lyrics may not have the level of sophistication that marks her melodies, but they peak humorously in the delightful song and dance "Boulevardier." ("The new chanteusie, goodbye to the bluesy, singing a new sound, fifty million Frenchman can't be wrong.")
Evidently on a roll with the York Theatre which produced Ionescopade (another musical from Kayden's trunk that is once again making the rounds), Storyville embraces the time and the place with affection if not total authenticity. Capturing the flair and the flavor of the score, the terrific band, under the direction of William Foster McDaniel played on after the curtain calls to a tremendous reception from an audience that was reluctant to leave.
One might quibble with some plot points that are left dangling and a few musical numbers that stray toward pastiche, as well as with the overall mood of Storyville that veers, without apology, from the woefully melodramatic to the wickedly cheerful. From what I understand, Storyville has undergone many resurrections and has variable running times up to three hours. No amount of conjuring or cutting, however, is likely to turn this now two-hours and fifteen minute musical into a smash hit. It is, however, a consistently diverting entertainment.