Off-Broadway Theater Review: STORYVILLE (York Theatre Company)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on July 23, 2013

in Theater-New York

STORY-LESS

A rubber knife jiggles and bends during an ostensibly dramatic stabbing scene. Characters’ “trumpet playing” is out of sync with the actual trumpeter. Performers Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Storyville, The York Theater Company at The Theater at Saint Peter’s in New Yorkstruggle to remember their lines. And the unremarkable dance numbers seem under-rehearsed and take place in a performance space that all too often feels overcrowded. These are some of the minor problems with York Theater Company’s new musical Storyville, with book by Ed Bullins and music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden. The major problems with this sentimental disaster are that the story is so flimsy that it falls apart from just being looked at, drama is utterly lacking, and characters exist in name only.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Storyville, The York Theater Company at The Theater at Saint Peter’s in New YorkSet in the Storyville red-light district of New Orleans on the eve of its forced closure in 1917, the show takes place mostly inside a brothel, which is populated with familiar clichés: Countess Willie Danger (Ernestine Jackson), the mysterious, sexually ambiguous old black madam with short-cropped hair and a black tuxedo; Tigre Savoy (Zakiya Young), the statuesque beauty with singing ambitions who is the hard-to-get whore; Fifi Foxy (Debra Walton), the short, avaricious dancing girl who is the not-so-hard-to-get whore; a big black voodoo magic woman, Mama Magique (NaTasha Yvette Williams); a trumpet player, Hot Licks Sam (Michael Leonard James); a heavy who does a mean soft shoe, Hot Feet Punchie (Leajato Robinson); and three violently bigoted white sailors (Cory Bretsch, Christopher Spaulding, Clifton Samuels) who (ironically?) like their hookers black (Karen Burthwright and Dameka Hayes).

Then there’s Mayor Mickey Mulligan (D. C. Anderson), the crooked politician who runs everything, and Baron Fontainebleau (Carl Wallnau), who’s come from France for some business and pleasure. Into this pat den of iniquity arrives Butch “Cobra” Brown (Kyle Robert Carter), a champion bare-knuckle boxer who’s hung up his Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Storyville, The York Theater Company at The Theater at Saint Peter’s in New Yorkknuckles for his true passion – playing the trumpet. But as soon as he sets foot in the place his trumpet is stolen and he starts working as a helper at the whorehouse.

The set-up and personages, though hackneyed, allow for many dramatic possibilities. Unfortunately, Mr. Bullins takes advantage of none of these. Every story he starts either goes nowhere immediately or has such a vacuous, pointless arc that he might as well have not bothered with it. Ms. Kayden’s songs, though at times musically engaging, have lyrics that are unilluminating and redundant, neither moving the action nor giving us any insights into the characters. Bill Castellino’s lame direction only exacerbates these failings.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Storyville, The York Theater Company at The Theater at Saint Peter’s in New YorkPerhaps most mystifying is the casting of Mr. Carter in the lead role as Butch, the great fighter/trumpet player. Not only is he totally unconvincing as either, he seems not to know what to do with himself on stage, period. Every one of his words and gestures feels awkward and self-conscious, his performance as flat and as hard to take as his singing.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Storyville, The York Theater Company at The Theater at Saint Peter’s in New YorkThe single actor to stand out in Storyville is Ms. Walton. Though no doubt still hampered by the lousy material, she’s the only one who appears to have really done her homework. And while the other performers, for lack of direction or motivation, seem at times to stare blankly or simply be going through the motions, Ms. Walton is truly present. Constantly reacting and finding little things for her character to do, she seems to be experiencing a world infinitely richer than her colleagues, and she wrings from her silly character whatever droplets of truth that she can. Among the talent wasted are Ms. Williams, who doesn’t get to sing nearly enough, and Mr. Robinson, whose single soft-shoe number, choreographed by Mercedes Ellington, is the most rousing thing in the entire show.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Storyville
York Theatre Company at The Theater at Saint Peter’s
scheduled to end on August 17, 2013
for tickets, call 212 935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org/

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