For many years Broadway shows would work on new plays and musicals out of town (i.e., New York), to
find what worked with audiences, to clear scripts from too much clutter or to strengthen themes or
characterizations, to provide exposition without leaving audiences unclear about who was who and what
was happening and why, and why it mattered. This was the Out-of-Town Tryout. I grew up in Boston, on
the usual route for these tryouts, along with Philadelphia and New Haven, cities close enough to bring
prospective financial backers to see the show in latter-stages embryo form. The results, as you may expect,
could swing wildly, from the awfully misconceived “Lolita, My Love” (truly as dreadful as it sounds) to the
sublimely beautiful “Follies.”
These days, we don’t hear about the tryout, but rather about development or workshop, though it amounts
to the same thing, and is as necessary to non-musicals as to musicals. Every one of August Wilson’s plays
would preview in regional theaters in such cities as San Diego. But it’s the musicals that carry most of the
attention, with new songs, new dances, new characters, and even at times new sets and costumes, and there
is a heightened level of excitement to all this seeming chaos.
The week, a new musical, “The Countess of Storyville,” book by RM Cohen, music by Martin Silvestri, lyrics
by Joel Higgins, and produced by veteran Tony-winning producer Margot Astrachan (“A Gentleman’s
Guide to Love and Murder”) opened in its second incarnation in the Marian Gallaway Theatre under the
auspices of the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Alabama, with a cast which includes
several professional Equity actors from NYC, graduate and undergraduate students from the department,
faculty members, and Tuscaloosans. The result is a superbly mounted production of a work in progress on
its way to Broadway.
“The Countess of Storyville” is set in New Orleans in 1910 at the height (or depth) of its infamous red-light
district, a time of violence, corruption (in politics, in the social fabric of the city, and in the souls of its
inhabitants). Storyville comprised 16 city blocks known largely through its brothels and the sex industry.
The play uses a combination of historical figures such as Tom Anderson, the unofficial “mayor” of
Storyville, and the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (performing street kids) as well as fictionalized portraits of E.J.
Bellocq (portrait photographer of women in the brothels), Marie Laveau (voodoo queen, hairdresser and
midwife), and Willie Piazza (model for the Countess, owner of the elegant racially mixed brothel). The play
also draws from historical events — the plotting of the Honduran revolution at the brothel, the attempt to
close down the Countess’ house by citing segregation laws — while focusing on parallel fictional triumphant
love stories, between the Countess and Honduran revolutionary Antonio Maduro, and between the crippled
photographer Philippe Belvedere and young and innocent Celine, who comes to the brothel initially to work
as a maid.
The production swirls around these characters as past injustices lead to revenge, murders, and the downfall
of Anderson and his political machine.
As one might imagine, such a large-scale story requires a large amount of technical and creative support
and in that the producer and her superb team, including director Mark Waldrop, choreographer Denis
Jones, music director P. Jason Yarcho and orchestrator David Siegel found first-rate comparable talents in
UA’s scenic designer Andy Fitch, costume designer Donna Meester, lighting designer William Teague,
technical director F. Randy deCelle, production designer Charles Moncrieff, hair/makeup by Emily Mae
Billington, props master Liz Whalen, and UA alumni Ashley Ottensmeier, sound designer, and Jen Nelson
Lane, stage manager.
To say this is one of the department’s strongest productions in the last decade (which includes “Ragtime,”
“A Chorus Line,” “Showboat,” “Urinetown,” “Chicago,” and last year’s “42nd Street”) may give audiences an
idea of the high bar the department has set.
The cast is uniformly solid in every respect, from leads down to ensemble. Paulette Ivory’s Countess
captures a conflicted soul as she falls in love against her better judgment. Cooper Grodin’s revolutionary
fervor vies with the need to survive. George Dvorsky’s powerful political boss radiates charm and menace in
the same breath. Aurelia Williams’ no-nonsense and sympathetic voodoo queen fills the stage with an
expansive heart. Jamie Laverdiere’s photographer stirs with decency and support for the girls, T. Oliver
Reid’s silkiness hides a deadly secret, and Monte J. Howell’s amused and amusing narrator and emcee to a
brash, loud party of decadence and revelry all bring us successfully into the world of 100 years ago. Among
supporting roles, there are too many to mention, even as all deserve to be mentioned, but I’ll quickly point
out three: William Martin’s Father Belevedere gives us a priest in moral turmoil over what to do to survive
politically and morally, Charles Prosser’s energetically corrupt alderman entertains with his spirited
portrait, and Mary Catherine Waltman’s arc from newly arrived in the city innocent to a woman sweetly in
love is quite moving.
As Waldrop points out in director’s notes in the program, “Countess of Storyville” is still a work in progress.
Some of the ballads, while individually well-written and all beautifully sung, seem to stay within a similar
tempo which could benefit from greater variety. And dare I suggest more jazz? In the second act, there is a
second-line funeral procession so wonderful and electric that the audience was likely tempted to join in the
march. The book by Cohen suffers, especially in the first act, not by being long but by seeming so with far
too many plot lines. To give but one example, there is a death by drowning of a minor character which gets
lost in the dramatic shuffle. As a historian, I appreciate the amount of research that went into the script, but
there can and ought to be further shaping of the material, and jettisoning that which clutters.
But I have no doubt these artists, creative all, will further tinker with the material and make it that much
stronger. Tuscaloosa, and especially UA and its Department of Theatre and Dance, are being given an
opportunity to be a part of a large creative and commercial project, and have risen to the challenge. Musical
theater lovers, pounce.
Steve Burch is a professor of theater history and playwriting at the University of Alabama Department of
Theatre and Dance.