‘What is our town coming to?” asks Mama Cecelyn. “We got whores, pimps, drug addicts, murderers, and liars in Storyville. But now we even have horn thieves amongst us. Mmm. Mmm. Mmm.” She just put a “success spell” on Butch’s horn, sprinkling it with “hoodoo goofus dust” so he’ll become a star trumpeter in Storyville, New Orleans’ “Back o’ Town” district. Next thing they know, the horn’s gone. Which puzzles Mama C. because she “didn’t conjure up no disappearing act.”
Like San Diego’s Stingaree, shut down in 1912 and later demolished, Storyville was New Orleans’ designated red-light district (so authorities could restrict prostitution to a single area). Unlike the Stingaree, which had a full complement of whores, pimps, broken bones, and slit throats, Storyville also boasted the hottest music on the planet. Louis Armstrong, Charles “Buddy” Bolden, and Ma Rainey (who could have sung down Jericho’s walls) gave birth to jazz in the dance halls, dives, and bucket-of-blood saloons. In 1917, an ordinance closed the district.
The musical Storyville, currently at the San Diego Rep, imagines the end of that era. Butch “Cobra” Brown, former prizefighter, wants to KO the Big Easy with his trumpet. But as the boxing world had room for only one African-American, Jack Johnson, “Hot Licks” Sam rules the music scene. Cobra also meets opposition from Mayor Mulligan, local power thug, and Baron Charles de Frontbleau, a suave boulevardier in love with torch singer Tigre Savoy — as, it turns out, is Cobra.
Storyville originated at UCSD in 1977 — book by playwright Ed Bullins and directed by the late Floyd Gaffney. The new version, revised and directed by Ken Page, with music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden, sports one of the Rep’s largest casts (21), a raucous, hot jazz-style band (tuba included), splashy choreography (Hector Mercado), and multitalented performers. It also runs almost three hours, often without forward momentum, and its 31 songs cover, it would seem, every conceivable occasion.
Lately, San Diego’s seen great ideas for musicals — Sammy (Sammy Davis Jr.), Limelight (Charlie Chaplin) — but with weak books. Include Storyville here. The entire first act introduces characters and places (even a song about the “Blue Book,” which listed the names and addresses of every prostitute in the district), but nothing urges it on. Complications begin in Act Two, but 17 songs, many isolated from the action, stall momentum. The musical concludes by gathering up every loose end and tying them into a profoundly facile knot.
Although Mildred Kayden’s music and lyrics often feel more Tin Pan Alley than Basin Street, they include a potential anthem for the survivors of Katrina-like events. DeBorah Sharpe-Taylor’s Mama Cecelyn belts “The Best Is Yet to Be” to the heavens. Revisions and cuttings (and the script needs bunches of both) could begin by reprising this hope-affirmer at the climax.
You’d think casting Cobra Brown would be near impossible. Wanted: someone who can sing, dance, act, play trumpet, and have the physicality of a heavyweight boxing champion. Although he has to fake the horn, which Clifford Brown III — related to the master? — blazes behind the scenes, Alvester Martin III does everything else.
Something I don’t think I’ve seen before on a stage: as “Hot Licks” Sam, Victor Morris acts, sings, dances, and, when he puts it to his lips and you expect outside embellishment, actually plays the trumpet with panache!
Wearing Jeanne Reith’s costumes, from red-light undergarments to Fat Tuesday glitz, Natalie Wachen (Tigre Savoy), Paul James Kruse (Mayor Mulligan), Chondra Profit (Fifi), and Leigh Scarritt (Countess Willie) make bold contributions.
Often, for people who see a lot of theater, going to a play resembles dining out. You sit and say, “Feed me,” forgetting that someone had to chop the carrots, shell the peas, and set the table — and that most of what you see was handcrafted.
The San Diego History Center’s interactive exhibit, Dressing the Part: Costume Design at the Old Globe, immerses visitors in the process. Walls of sketches, several of them quality art, lead you into Gallery 5, where mannequins on platforms loom over you. They seem both larger than life (because elevated) and sharper than memory. Even if you saw the show, you saw the costume from afar. Up close, the detail is often stunning. Lewis Brown’s Portia (Merchant of Venice, 1991), for example, is hand-pleated silk. From three feet away, Robert Morgan’s Mistress Overdone (2007), a deliberately over-the-top sunburst of reds, golds, and greens with floral prints, is astonishingly garish.
The exhibit treats the subject with a variety of perspectives, from videos to dressing rooms where visitors can don a greatcoat or a gown. A key emphasis throughout: costumes aren’t just for a character and period, they’re also a tool for a specific actor. Anna Oliver’s elegant green ottoman gown (1998) recalls one of Craig Noel’s legendary retorts. When handed an emerald dress, an actress complained, “But I never wear green!”
“Of course,” replied Noel without batting an eye, “but your character does.” ■
Storyville, by Ed Bullins (reimagined by Ken Page)
Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Ken Page; cast: Tahj Myers, Natalie Wachen, Alvester Martin III, DeBorah Sharp Taylor, Chondra Profit, Victor Morris, Paul James Kruse, Dajahn A. Blevins, Cris O’Bryon, Andy Collins, Leigh Scarritt; scenic design, John Anderson; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Steven Young; sound, Tom Jones; choreography, Hector Mercado; musical director, William Foster McDaniel; orchestrations, Danny Holgate
Playing through December 12; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000
Dressing the Part: Costume Design at the Old Globe
San Diego History Center, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
On view through April 15, 619-232-6203