The central character of "Storyville," which opened Saturday at Ford's Theatre, has mixed feelings about jazz. So does the show itself.
"Storyville" takes its audience to the New Orleans red-light district in 1917, when jazz was young. The central character is a saloon singer who thinks she's too good for jazz. Apparently she changes her tune when she falls for a retiring boxer who's trying to begin a career creating the new music on his trumpet. At the end of the show, they leave dying Storyville together, determined to spread jazz across America.
Unfortunately, we never actually hear the singer changing her tune. If anything, Mildred Kayden's score becomes less jazzy as the evening goes by.
There are a couple of rousing numbers for the chorus line, staged by Arthur Faria. But in only one number of the show -- appropriately called "Feel That Jazz" -- does it sound as if the composer actually feels that jazz. The crucial song in which the lovers make up after their requisite spat sounds as if it could have been written for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Yahee, who plays the chanteuse, is stunning to behold, particularly as attired by Carol Oditz. But she is not an overpowering singer. The program notes that Yahee "can be seen doing her nightclub act as Star Wilson in ABC's 'Edge of Night,'" and this seems all too likely.
Ira Hawkins, who plays her lover, has a stronger voice. But it sounds trained for opera, not jazz. And when Hawkins and the kinetic Christophe Pierre briefly put their trumpets to their lips, the sound clearly comes from someone in the band. which is located behind John Lee Beatty's overgrown set.
"Storyville" was written by Ed Bullins. Those who know Bullins for his tough, abrasive plays should be warned that "Storyville" is soft and predictable in script as well as score.
Several performers make vivid impressions in stock roles: Edye Byrde as the Storyville mammy, Jackie Lowe as the tart, Michael Tartel as the black-caped villain, Laura Waterbury as the worldly madame. Billy Payne, as the singer's little boy, has a face that flexes in a variety of fascinating ways.
But "Storyville" never quite manages to shake off Tin Pan Alley and settle in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong, a Storyville trumpeter himself, was once asked to define jazz and reportedly responded: "When you gotta ask what it is, you'll never get to know." The creators of "Storyville" appear to be tourists from Broadway, asking questions about the Storyville era without understanding the answers.