Musical adaptation of ‘Nine Lives’ shows off New Orleans characters and sounds
Trumpets screamed, tambourines rattled and singers harmonized about pain, joy, grits and greens at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre last night as an all-star cast of local musicians presented a Broadway-style portrait of New Orleans.
The musical adaptation of the book “Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans” by Dan Baum debuted with two performances Wednesday night, both sellouts.
The show, intended to grow into a full musical, depicts the city through two of its most distinct features: real-life characters and musical prowess. The musical adaption by Colman deKay and Paul Sanchez entertained audiences with a portrait of the city created by stories of its residents, the tales delivered via a range of music, dance and theatrics. References to Carnival royalty, Huey P. Long, drugs, the New Orleans Saints, Katrina, even grits and banana bread, surfaced in show-tune form. And like most musicals, the performances included dancing, but in keeping with the city’s spirit, onstage moves were freestyle as opposed to choreographed, with entertainers breaking into second-line steps.
Readers have praised Baum’s book for its powerful and compassionate portrayal of the city. Baum arrived in New Orleans after the storm as a journalist for The New Yorker and developed a deep connection with the city, which prompted he and his wife to move here in January 2007 and write “Nine Lives.” The nonfiction book depicts 40 years of life in the city, from 1965, the year Hurricane Betsy hit, to post-Katrina times in 2007, through the oral histories of nine New Orleans residents.
The book inspired Sanchez and deKay to create a soundtrack album, a two-disc set including 24 original songs. The album, released on Mystery Street Records, features more than 100 musicians and vocalists, mostly from New Orleans. The show’s music was culled from the album, the more complex orchestrations arranged for the stage by New Orleans tuba and sousaphone player Matt Perrine, who served as musical director for the show. New Orleans singer Debbie Davis served as vocal director.
During last night’s show, renowned New Orleans musicians like guitarist Sanchez, trumpeter Shamarr Allen and singer Tricia Boutte, among others, flaunted their talents while performing the stories of fellow New Orleanians featured in Baum’s book. Sanchez sang of heroin junkies and Katrina deaths as coroner Frank Minyard, Allen issued strong orders as band director Wilbert Rawlins Jr. and Boutte rushed the sewing of her Mardi Gras Indian chief husband as Joyce Montana.
Members of the stage band, also a roll call of topnotch New Orleans musicians, joined the acting with trombonist Craig Klein and trumpeter Mark Braud filling minor roles.
Veteran actors Harry Shearer, known for his roles in “Spinal Tap” and “The Simpsons,” and Bryan Batt of “Mad Men” fame drew audience laughs with their antics as proud Carnival king Billy Grace and his son-in-law, heir to the throne. Broadway actor and Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris showed his range by playing both John Guidos, a transsexual bar owner who becomes JoAnn Guidos during the show, as well as police officer Tim Bruneau.
Music ranged from string-heavy ballads and saucy jazz numbers to fierce hip-hop and angry rock. Mournful harmonies backed by somber trombone expressed Minyard’s angst in helping drug addicts. Regal horns lauded Shearer and Batt’s Carnival king scenes. Soulful female vocals and shaking tambourines marked the tales of Mardi Gras Indians. A sultry song backed by a muted trumpet, and later a funky disco number helped illustrate John Guidos’ transformation into JoAnn. A pretty violin-centered song described a tumultuous time for Belinda Rawlins.
The show included a simple set with no props; projected photos of New Orleans homes, cop cars, bar signs and other imagery provided the backdrop.
The musical adaptation portrays the beautiful and dirty sides of the city. A rowdy song called “Run Against You and Win” showcases the city’s dealings with drugs and politics. Tionne Johnson, who plays a young Belinda, sings of dreams to exchange her Lower 9th Ward life for the lives depicted on television, with picket-fenced homes in places where “the cops are on your side.”
“Be sure to kiss your Mama before she goes to work till dawn,” Johnson sings.
Pride and determination take center stage in Mardi Gras Indian-inspired songs like “Tootie” and “Bring the Mountain to Him.”
Allen’s lyrics in “We Are the Band” also help define the city: “The music lives.”
The final song,”Rebuild/Renew (Now),” brought audience members to their feet in a standing – dancing? – ovation. Nearly every audience member was clapping and grooving by the time the cast and band took their bows.
“The response from the audience was so gratifying,” deKay said after the second performance, adding that the crowd reaction gives him confidence that a full musical is viable. “It was so powerful and so affirming.”
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