Storyville – Inside the Bawdy Brothel of 1917 French Quarter

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by Sandi Durell

This re-imagined revival, written by Ed Bullins with music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden, is based on true events, taking place in the “Back o’ Town’ – the red light district just outside the French Quarter where booze, drugs and women were easy to find, especially here at the Bird Box. It was the place where white sailors, who were full of racial slurs, hung out with black whores.

It was also the part of town to hear hot jazz, brassy, sassy especially coming from the horn of Hot Licks Sam (Michael Leonard James) and his band. The lady who runs the place is Countess Willy Danger (a very svelte Ernestine Jackson in black tails and top hat) who narrates a lot of what unfolds.

If you can discount a rather skimpy book and just go with the pleasures of some good songs, singers, and choreographed numbers by Mercedes Ellington, then this two act evening will give you a lift.

When a new entry into the fray, boxer Butch ‘Cobra’ Brown (Kyle Robert Carter) has his trumpet stolen as soon as he enters the club (he wants to give up boxing for music which he equates with love), he flys into a rage but is easily tamed when he sees the lovely Tigre Savoy (Zakiya Young) who doesn’t appear too interested in his heavy duty advances. Enter the corrupt Mayor Mickey Mulligan (a perfectly cast D.C. Anderson) who offers him a job as a bouncer.  To be near Tigre, he accepts. Tigre is a high and uppity whore who has other ideas for her own future.

The Mayor has an opium deal brewing with Baron Fontainebleu (Carl Wallnau), a nightclub owner from Paris, but the Baron is also attracted to Tigre, asking her to be his Queen at the Fat Tuesday Parade – a no, no – a Black Queen and a White King? – and offers to take her to Paris on his yacht to star in his show. But things fall apart when Butch is forced to fight two white sailors, as one is stabbed.  If he doesn’t want to take the fall for the killing, the Mayor says he must deliver the opium and pick up the money for the Baron.

The bawdy girls at the Club features Fifi Foxy (Debra Walton) who appears to have interpreted her role with specific dramatic intent and an ability to emote all those emotions. She’s the slutiest slut of them all, willing to do or say anything as she is always in competition with Tigre.

Mama Magique (NaTasha Yvette Williams – recently The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess on Broadway), is magical in her role as the voodoo queen, her high level vocal qualities requiring a bigger role, as she easily negotiates her way around.

Hot Feet Punchie (Leajato Robinson) was surely deserving of more than one great dance routine.

Although Ms. Young has an impressive look and voice, she seems to fall short and needs to relax more. Mr. Carter is not the most suitable for his role, with pop sounding vocals, seemingly giving the feeling he’s not too comfortable.

It’s the songs that carry the theme through and the clever staging by director Bill Castellino. Some of the highlights – “Back o’ Town’ Rag,” “Makin’ It,” Animal Stomp,” “Riffs and Breaks” and others – musical direction by William Foster McDaniel.

The York’s Artistic Director James Morgan, created the well thought out set design that include sepia photos of the bordello ladies on the walls that carry into the front areas of the theater; the period costumes are by Nicole Wee.

Who would have thought that a musical that opens with a Funeral march down the York’s center aisle with all the cast members, including musicians, would serve as a fulfilling evening in theater?

Photos: Carol Rosegg

Storyville thru Aug.17 at the York Theatre at St. Peter’s, 619 Lexington Ave. (East 54 St.) 212 935-5820, yorktheatre.org.

 

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