NEW YORK—There’s a lot of material to be mined in Storyville (book by Ed Bullins, music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden), now having its New York premiere at the York Theatre Company. But sadly, the show’s creators try to shoehorn in too many plots and characters, which leads to the result being disjointed.
Based on historical fact, Storyville was the infamous red-light district in New Orleans—a place where everything from music to corruption flowed freely.
In 1917, boxer-turned-musician Butch “Cobra” Brown (Kyle Robert Carter) arrives with the idea of introducing the new sound of jazz to Storyville—that is, until his horn is stolen, and he’s forced to take a job as bartender in a nightclub owned by Mayor Mickey Mulligan (D.C. Anderson).
Butch quickly becomes enamored with Tigre Savoy (Zakiya Young), the headliner at the club. Tigre, due to a bad experience with men, now gives them all a wide birth. Though, to her surprise, she finds herself drawn to this brash and somewhat violent newcomer.
While Butch tries to settle into his new job, the audience is introduced to some of the other inhabitants of the district. Countess Willy Danger (Ernestine Jackson) is the unofficial “Queen Mother” of the area, and Mama Magique (NaTasha Yvette Williams) is a practitioner of voodoo.
Hot Licks Sam, (Michael Leonard James) is a horn player with a large following, and Fifi Foxy (Debra Walton) is another singer at the club and lady of the evening, whose ambitions are for things far beyond her reach.
Meanwhile the Mayor, a fellow with a finger in every dirty deal in town, is working on delivering a big drug shipment in partnership with the visiting Baron Fontainebleau (Carl Wallnau).
Because all these characters are brought in so quickly, however, the audience has little time to get to know any of them. There are also too many songs included, with people warbling at the drop of a hat; the show falls into the common problem of using music in places where a few words of dialogue would do better.
The first act eventually does build to a suitable climax, one which threatens to derail everyone’s supposedly well-laid plans. But since many of the characters aren’t fully formed enough to elicit anything but a passing interest, the overall effect feels weak.
In contrast, the beginning of the second act explodes off the stage, much of the drama coming from the actions of the Mayor, with Anderson doing a wonderful job in the role.
There’s also an interesting bit with Hot Licks, who initially treated Butch with little more than disdain, but who suddenly tries to help him out of a jam.
However, these plot lines are quickly dropped without ever being fully resolved—a common problem throughout the show. The lack of continuity defeats the momentum the work tries to build up.
Another problem is the character of Fifi. Director Bill Castellino doesn’t seeming to know if the character should be a caricature, an out-and-out villain, or comic relief.
That the show remains as interesting as it does is a testament to the source material. It deals with multiple issues ranging from racism to the changing times—both musical and political.
Carter does a great job with Butch, a perennially angry man trying to turn over a new leaf; while Jackson is fine as the Countess, who also serves as the narrator of the piece.
Young is excellent as Tigre, a sort of wounded soul with a shell of armor around her, which Butch hopes to breach; and Wallnau is good as Fontainebleau, though he seems to be channeling Omar Sharif at times.
The score by Kayden is excellent, especially the bitter “Makin’ It,” where characters sing about what they have to do in order to survive. Also excellent is the powerful “Demi-Monde” (sung by Young) and the New Orleans funeral number, which opens the show.
The score is also helped by a very capable group of onstage musicians (Clarence Banks, Napoleon Revels-Bey, Bob Carten, Dave Grego, Micah Burgess, and Stanton Davis). And the atmospheric set by James Morgan beautifully sets up what is to come.
Hopefully the Storyville creative team will make some structural changes to their project and come back with something more focused. If they succeed, the sky’s the limit for this one.
Also in the cast are Cory Bretsch, Karen Burthwright, Dameka Hayes, Leajato Robinson, Clifton Samuels, and Christopher Spaulding.
York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Avenue
Tickets: 212-935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Closes: Aug. 17
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.