Storyville is a portrait of the New Orleans red light district sometimes credited as the birthplace of jazz, in the days before the federal government closed it by force in 1917. Boasting a book by acclaimed playwright Ed Bullins, with music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden, the piece is currently being revived by the midtown-based York Theatre Company.
The musical focuses on the boxer and trumpeter Butch “Cobra” Brown (Kyle Robert Carter), who comes to town and immediately falls in love with hard-to-get jazz singer Tigre (Zakiya Young). After facing various racially motivated threats instigated by Storyville’s conniving “Mayor” Mulligan—including a rigged “battle royale,” a botched attempt on Tigre’s life, and an illicit deal that turns sour in a cash handoff—Brown ultimately wins Tigre’s affection. The two head upriver together to spread the gospel of jazz across the country when Storyville is shut down at the show’s end.
It’s a promising scenario, no doubt, and one with continuing political relevance in our post-Katrina, post-Trayvon age. But past its key narrative points, Storyville feels notably hollow, a loose collection of incidents and one-dimensional characters that never fully cohere into a plot.
At its 1977 La Jolla premiere, the piece was met with a chilly critical reception, with the La Jolla Light’s Gay Fall asking in a laconic headline, “But, Where Is the Story?” It’s a good question. One of Bullins’s biographers records that Storyville originally ran almost six hours before being slashed for its premiere. At just over two hours in this revival, it seems like the skeleton of a larger, more complex, perhaps richer work.
Kayden’s songs are energetic and sometimes fun, but they fall short of the high mark set by their New Orleans predecessors. The lyrics are mostly forgettable. Musical numbers break up the already fragmentary plot rather than furthering it, and so the show’s overall musical effect is more like a scattered revue than a coherent whole.
The York Theatre Company’s production, directed by Bill Castellino, almost redeems the piece’s flaws. Its large, ensemble-based cast is uniformly strong, and several performances are truly exceptional: Carter and Young shine as the young romantic leads, while NaTasha Yvette Williams and Debra Walton (as Mama and Fifi, respectively) all but steal the show with their outstanding vocals in act two. The production’s direction, design elements, choreography, and music are all competently executed.
Still, something crucial is missing. Certain moments may set toes tapping, but the lack of a compelling story in Storyville will ultimately leave its audience feeling indifferent.