Welcome to Storyville, New Orleans, where the prostitutes wait with blue books in hand, where the politicians slip their dollars under the table, where the music is always playing and where everyone is doing what they can to make it. The York Theatre Company presents “Storyville,” a tale of love, music and the death of New Orleans’ seediest, most infamous red-light district.
At the center of the action is Storyville’s cabaret, a home for music, dancing and the … well … finer pleasures in life. The main attraction of the cabaret is Tigre, a star who wants to rise above her surroundings and really make it with her music. The jealous attention-grabber Fifi Foxy, convinced that Tigre is not the lady she pretends to be, tries to push her out of the spotlight.
Meanwhile, champion boxer Butch “Cobra” Brown arrives in Storyville with the intention of hanging up his gloves and making his way with his trumpet instead. Tigre catches his eye, and as their courtship starts, their employer (and the employer of everyone in Storyville), Mayor Mickey Mulligan, digs his fingers into some illegal business to keep the town going. As the town hosts wealthy French businessman Baron Fontainebleau, who takes a special interest in Tigre, racial tensions rise and eventually lead to a series of changes that forever alter Storyville.
The show’s set, with its small cabaret stage on the left, the orchestra stage to the right, the city landscape hanging overhead and old-fashioned street lamps hanging throughout, elicits a quaint, historic feel. The story is one you’ve heard before: A high-class woman with dreams, aspirations and expectations unwittingly falls for a guy who may not seem to have much potential, but is nevertheless pushed forward by his passion and spirit. It’s the lady and the tramp set to song, and issues of race and change also come up throughout the show. The characters address differences in class and values, and they try to reconcile their self-respect with the realities of the world in which they live.
Zakiya Young, as Tigre, presents a strong female lead with a crystalline voice that is shown off in numbers like “Prove It” and “Riffs and Breaks.” “The Best is Yet to Be” also shines as one of the musical’s best numbers. Natasha Yvette Williams, as the funny, lovable Mama Magique, has a voice that’s dynamic and powerful enough to break down walls. The complicated number encompasses the greatest turn of the show and, consequentially, displays both the hope and sorrow of the characters during the metaphorical death of Storyville.
The plot of “Storyville” is pretty simple and the characters, especially Tigre, Butch and Mama Magique, are basic, stock characters. Thus, parts of “Storyville” can be very predictable. The production itself is sloppy at times, with the actors occasionally stumbling in pitch, harmony or choreography. The acting itself feels campy at times, and that oh-so-recognizable N’Awlins drawl is nowhere to be heard.
Despite its faults, “Storyville” still has its moments of unbridled joy: the scalding hot footwork of Leajato Robinson as Hot Feet Punchie, the wild energy and mania of “Animal Stomp” and the uproarious, triumphant final burst of energy in “Call the Children Home.”
It’s not the neatest, cleanest bit of theater, but a trip to 1917 Storyville, New Orleans, will teach you that a little bit of messy, wild fun—and a lot of music to go with it—is no less enjoyable. “Storyville” is playing at Saint Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Ave., through Aug. 17. For more information or tickets, call 212-935-5280 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.