Tuesday, July 30, 2013

'Storyville': Toe-Tapping Revival of Musical About New Orleans Red-Light District

'Storyville' at York Theatre Company


I read somewhere that an early version of Ed Bullins’s Storyville, the ambitious and exuberant musical (music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden) now in revival at the York Theatre Company, clocked in at six hours—though I hasten to add that the running time is now around two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission.

Compression is difficult to master when you have so much to say.  And Storyville does have a lot to say, rather like other works that have attempted with varying degrees of success to take on the majestic sweep of history—shows like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Rags, and Ragtime, to name a few other brave efforts at conquering this particular subgenre of musical theater. 

Storyville relates the events leading up to the forced closing in 1917 of New Orleans’s red-light district and the subsequent spread of jazz music during the era of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the cities of the North. In telling this tale, both the playwright and the composer have had to resort to shorthand and referential nods to the familiar.

Musically, Kayden has written a wide range of songs evocative of the time and place: funeral procession music, blues, ragtime, Dixieland, dance numbers (the Charleston), a Cab Calloway ‘scat’ tune.  Most of these are quite excellent, often toe-tapping winners.  I haven’t been able to find a recording of this show, but someone needs to do one.  

On the other hand, in writing the book, Bullins has had to condense a lot of material in order to capture the particulars. 

He has introduced story elements about the international drug trade, about the world of professional boxing, about the role of voodoo rituals, and about the changing styles of jazz musicianship.  He has looked at racism from the blatant (the subjugation of the African American characters by the white power brokers) to the more subtle (a light-skinned African American prostitute makes a comment on the relative blackness of another).  He has given three of his central characters the names of animals (Cobra, Tigre, and Foxy), as if to tap into the realm of fables or of West African trickster tales. 

There are bits that may remind you of Show Boat (the subject of miscegenation is a plot element) or of Porgy and Bess (will Tigre Savoy give in to the lure of the big city, or will she stay with her man Cobra?). 

But Show Boat had Oscar Hammerstein and Porgy and Bess had DuBose Heyward writing their respective scripts, and they were rather better at it—unless it is the truncating of the story is the source of the mushiness.  I do wonder what the six-hour version looked like. 

The game actors do what they can with the sketchily defined roles, and at least two of them—Debra Walton as the conniving yet na├»ve Fifi Foxy and Michael Leonard James as the jazz band leader Hot Licks Sam—have done a particularly fine job of embodying their characters. Yet the production itself feels constrained. 

This is a musical that longs to burst out of its confinement, especially during the first act, which is all about atmosphere and style.  Director Bill Castellino and choreographer Mercedes Ellington make effective use of the center aisle from time to time, but most of the staging lacks the sense of the excitement, the hustle and bustle that defines the locale.  While watching, I wondered what Diane Paulus or Baz Luhrmann might have been able to do to lift the production to the level of the rousing score, which is being given an equally rousing accompaniment by the on-stage band, under the fine direction of William Foster McDaniel.

Storyville has seen a number of productions since the first one in 1977, and it is not hard to see the attraction of continuing to tinker with it in search for just the right formula to bring out the show’s full potential. Someone, perhaps, should go back to the original material and restore enough of it to more fully flesh out the plot, and then find just the right creative team to make this rough-cut gemstone sparkle. This might make an interesting project for Encores! to tackle. 

Until then, do plan on a visit to the York Theatre Company to see what is undoubtedly a significant musical, and, especially, to hear Mildred Kayden’s excellent score, well performed by the cast and by the band.  If nothing else, you'll dance your way out of the theater and up to the street. 


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