Review – 'Storyville' Jazz Musical Is Too Darn Lukewarm

At the commencement of Storyville, set in the infamous New Orleans red light district of a hundred years ago, the entire company of actors and musicians parade through the audience, replicating a traditional jazz funeral. The casket held up high looks small enough to hold an infant, preparing viewers for a tragic story involving the death of a baby.

Review – 'Storyville' Jazz Musical Is Too Darn LukewarmBut before you can say "Welcome To New Orleans," which happens to be the title of the opening number, it seems that plot point is dead and buried as cast members kick up their heels in merriment.

Which is just as well because the emotionally thin musical by Ed Bullins (book) and Mildred Kayden (score) takes an interesting chunk of cultural history - how the 1917 government closing of the city's district of legal brothels sent the musicians who filled its nightlife up the Mississippi and across the Atlantic to spread the glory of jazz - and presents it as a backdrop to a soap opera romance that only comes alive when the talented cast members sink their teeth into the songs; a genial collection of jazz, blues, gospel and showtune greatly enhanced by Danny Holgate's hot orchestrations for seven on-stage musicians.

Storyville has been kicking around regional theatres for thirty years, but the handsome new production at the York, designed with seedy festiveness by James Morgan (set), Nicole Wee (costumes) and Michael Gottlieb (lights), is its New York premiere.

Ernestine Jackson hosts the proceedings as the sardonic and androgynous brothel owner Countess Willy Danger, looking a bit like Duke Ellington in her top hat and tails, but the character that gets the story rolling is Butch "Cobra" Brown (Kyle RoBert Carter), a former boxing champ who wants to ditch that life and spend the rest of his days blowing his trumpet. He falls for bluesy singer Tigre Savoy (Zakiya Young) who is being wooed to Paris by a French aristocrat (Carl Wallnau) who wants to star her in his nightclub.

Review – 'Storyville' Jazz Musical Is Too Darn LukewarmWhile Carter and Young make for a fine singing romantic pair, Butch and Tigre's relationship is frequently overshadowed by featured moments for a large assortment of characters, such as a slick rival musician (Michael Leonard James), a boisterous voodoo lady (NaTasha Yvette Williams, belting the obligatory second act gospel showstopper) and a comical showgirl (Debra Walton, whose sultry vocals are severely underutilized).

Story complications include Butch being cornered into taking part in a brutal boxing match by corrupt boss Mayor Mickey Mulligan (D.C. Anderson as a melodramatic villain), who later gets him mixed up in an opium deal.

Director Bill Castellino keeps the evening moving swiftly and Mercedes Ellington's dances add some period bounce, but while the musical has many very entertaining moments, they never build into anything exciting.

Storyville may be a pleasant diversion, but the subject deserves a whole lot more.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Ernestine Jackson; Bottom: Michael Leonard James and Kyle RoBert Carter.

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