Storyville, the musical revival bursting forth from the York Theater Company for a too-short five weeks, is a fascinating exercise in nostalgia, several times over. On stage, we experience the storied red-light district of New Orleans in 1917, a neighborhood two blocks from the French Quarter full of crooks and conmen and hookers — and trumpet players and pianists and singers who gave birth to the music we know as jazz.
“Umm yes, I remember, once upon a time in Storyville,” says the Countess Willy Danger, a woman in top hat and tails — the first line of dialogue in the musical, after we see the cast marching down the central aisle in a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral procession. We realize that the funeral was for Storyville itself, shut down in 1917, eventually razed to make room for a huge public housing project.
The Countess, the proprietor of a house of ill-repute during Storyville’s heyday, is portrayed by Ernestine Jackson, an actress who debuted on Broadway nearly half a century ago — and who performed in “Storyville” in a production in California….in 1974. The book of “Storyville” was written by Ed Bullins, award-winning in-your-face playwright who once served as Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers. He is now 78 years old. The music — which captures the feel of the alternating brassy, seductive and soulful jazz of the turn of the 20th century — was composed in the 1970s by Mildred Kayden, who also penned the oft-clever lyrics. A long-time songwriter, Kayden was also a radio host and a musicologist on the faculty of Vassar College. She is now 91 years old.
The nostalgia doesn’t end there. The York theater production is choreographed by Mercedes Ellington — Duke Ellington’s granddaughter.
Incredibly, “Storyville” has never been produced in New York City before. It’s about time.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged
There is plenty of plot in “Storyville. Ex-boxer and trumpeter, Butch ‘Cobra’ Brown (Kyle Robert Carter), arrives in town looking for work, but finds and falls in love with Tigre Savoy, a talented and slinky singer (portrayed by the talented and slinky Zakiya Young) who wants out of Storyville. While playing the game of love with one another, they each compete with rivals, Cobra with bandleader Hot Licks Sam (the spectacular Michael Leonard James), Tigre with Fifi Foxy (Debra Walton as a wonderfully coarse and evil flirt.)
Then there is the arrival of the French Baron de Fontainebleau (Carl Wallnau) who asks Tigre to be his Queen in the Fat Tuesday Parade.
“A black queen with a white king? It can’t happen,” says corrupt Mayor Mickey Mulligan (D.C. Anderson)
But since the mayor is corrupt, and does business with the Baron, who is a drug dealer, it does happen.
There are fights, musical competitions, a killing, and the arrival of the authorities determined to shut it all down.
The story in “Storyville” is not the reason to see it. The reason is the musical performances, almost two dozen numbers rendered by a 14-member cast that could hardly be better. Each gets at least a moment in the sun — such as Leajato Robinson as Bigfeet Punchie in a rousing tap-dancing number, and NaTasha Yvette Williams as the voodoo practitioner Mama Magique in a series of roof-ripping solos.
For a sample of the rousing entertainment, here are three of the songs, as performed at the Broadway in Bryant Park lunchtime concert. If you’re blown away by the performances in the videos below, keep in mind they are without the stage of the York, a deeper and better frame for Ellington’s choreography; without Nicole Wee’s colorful costumes, and without James Morgan set design, a rough-hewn saloon which cleverly incorporates old sepia photographs of the actual ladies of the night of Storyville.
Welcome to New Orleans
The Best Is Yet To Come
The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (Entrance on East 54th Street)
Written by Ed Bullins
Music and Lyrics by Mildred Kayden
Directed by Bill Castellino
Orchestrations and Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Musical Direction by William Foster McDaniel
Choreography by Mercedes Ellington
Cast: Ernestine Jackson, D.C. Anderson, Cory Bretsch, Karen Burthwright, Kyle Robert Carter, Dameka Hayes, Michael Leonard James, Leajato Robinson, Clifton Samuels, Christopher Spaulding, Carl Wallnau, Debra Walton, NaTasha Yvette Williams and Zakiya Young
Running time: Two hours including an intermission.
Storyville is scheduled to run until August 17, but it will be a shock (and a shame) if it’s not extended.