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Storyville: A Jazzy Musical Struggles to Find Its Rhythm

Storyville is a portrait of the New Orleans red light district sometimes credited as the birthplace of jazz, in the days before the federal government closed it by force in 1917. Boasting a book by acclaimed playwright Ed Bullins, with music and lyrics by Mildred Kayden, the piece is currently being revived by the midtown-based York Theatre Company.

The musical focuses on the boxer and trumpeter Butch “Cobra” Brown (Kyle Robert Carter), who comes to town and immediately falls in love with hard-to-get jazz singer Tigre (Zakiya Young). After facing various racially motivated threats instigated by Storyville’s conniving “Mayor” Mulligan—including a rigged “battle royale,” a botched attempt on Tigre’s life, and an illicit deal that turns sour in a cash handoff—Brown ultimately wins Tigre’s affection. The two head upriver together to spread the gospel of jazz across the country when Storyville is shut down at the show’s end.

It’s a promising scenario, no doubt, and one with continuing political relevance in our post-Katrina, post-Trayvon age. But past its key narrative points, Storyville feels notably hollow, a loose collection of incidents and one-dimensional characters that never fully cohere into a plot.

At its 1977 La Jolla premiere, the piece was met with a chilly critical reception, with the La Jolla Light’s Gay Fall asking in a laconic headline, “But, Where Is the Story?” It’s a good question. One of Bullins’s biographers records that Storyville originally ran almost six hours before being slashed for its premiere. At just over two hours in this revival, it seems like the skeleton of a larger, more complex, perhaps richer work.

Kayden’s songs are energetic and sometimes fun, but they fall short of the high mark set by their New Orleans predecessors. The lyrics are mostly forgettable. Musical numbers break up the already fragmentary plot rather than furthering it, and so the show’s overall musical effect is more like a scattered revue than a coherent whole.

The York Theatre Company’s production, directed by Bill Castellino, almost redeems the piece’s flaws. Its large, ensemble-based cast is uniformly strong, and several performances are truly exceptional: Carter and Young shine as the young romantic leads, while NaTasha Yvette Williams and Debra Walton (as Mama and Fifi, respectively) all but steal the show with their outstanding vocals in act two. The production’s direction, design elements, choreography, and music are all competently executed.

Still, something crucial is missing. Certain moments may set toes tapping, but the lack of a compelling story in Storyville will ultimately leave its audience feeling indifferent.

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Andrew Bujalski Grows Up with Beeswax

Though no one’s idea of an action film, Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax feels less charmingly aimless than its radically slight precursors Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2006). Have Bujalski’s feckless characters joined the workaday world? As its title suggests, Beeswax has a mild buzz of business—and busy-ness.

Set in Austin, world capital of mumblecore—the low-tech, perf-driven, young person’s movement presaged by Funny Ha Ha—this loose, low-key, unaccountably fascinating movie has no particular sense of place. There are few establishing shots—Bujalski’s setups are dictated mainly by his characters’ relationships, most crucially that of the thirtyish twins played by actual twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher.

Beeswax was inspired by the Hatchers, whom Bujalski has known for a decade, and their on-screen interaction (slightly infantile, a touch tense) imbues even the most ordinary activities with a strong behavioral subtext. So does Tilly’s being in a wheelchair. Each is introduced doing her thing: Tilly’s Jeannie first appears at work—gliding through Storyville, the funky but capacious thrift-store-cum-boutique she co-owns with the enigmatic Amanda, a seldom-seen friend from who she has become estranged. Bujalski’s camera admires Jeannie’s purposeful maneuvers, straightening the Storyville stock while training the employee Amanda has unexpectedly hired. Cut to Maggie’s Lauren, cheerfully waking up and then breaking up with her current boyfriend.

Whereas harried Jeannie always has lots on her mind, happy Lauren can’t keep a thought in her head—a dialectic most sweetly played out when the sisters collaborate on a photo shoot. Another key scene has the pair at lunch: After watching the super-competent Jeannie handle an emergency at the store over the phone, Lauren manages to leave her wallet at the restaurant.

What, Bujalski wonders, are the ties that bind? And when is something none of your beeswax? Afraid that Amanda is planning to sue her, Jeannie reaches out for legal support—reestablishing contact with an old boyfriend, Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), who is studying for the bar. Improbable as it sounds in this understated world, Beeswax is a movie about people in crisis. Set at a low simmer, the plot thickens when Lauren is offered a job—in Nairobi. An almost cruelly abrupt ending simultaneously reinforces and undermines the movie’s artfully served slice of life.

Following the smash success of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday and The New Yorker‘s catch-up report on the “mumblecore genre,” Beeswax marks the year’s third triumph for the little movement that could—and also its passing into the Amerindie mainstream. Where Shelton both satirizes and exploits mumblecore’s straight white boys’ club and David Denby’s fretful appreciation (can micro-budget movies survive?) chases a horse long since left the barn, Beeswax exemplifies post-mumble maturity. The movie is not only semi-documentary, but also casually thoughtful (or at least self-reflexive)—working with friends is what Bujalski does in creating his own particular Storyville.

Bujalski has always been good at making closeness feel exotic, and awkwardness seem natural. And though there’s nothing labored about Beeswax, it gives the impression of something being worked out—even while it’s happening. Calculated spontaneity is this talented director’s greatest gift. Merrill marvels when a witticism falls flat: “In my mind, it sounded so different.” The director might express the same self-absorbed wonder, watching his superficially ordinary and suggestively strange film take form.

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Old Professionals

“Is there anything sadder than a whore?” asked Wedekind’s Lulu, who didn’t become one till shortly before her death. The five aging ladies of the night in Paula Vogel’s circular, and slightly loopy, comedy The Oldest Profession bear out Lulu’s worst suspicions. Vogel means to provide both laughter and a mordant economic parable, and intermittently she gives good chunks of both. But her story of five escapees from the shuttering of New Orleans’ Storyville in 1918, who wind up as SRO beldames in the fiscal miseries of Reagan-era New York, their list of johns confined to the local old-age homes, is both too tenuously fanciful and too elliptically told to get much energy going in either direction.

Vogel means us to admire these working girls’ pluck, and to ponder their contrasting views of how their commodity should be peddled, as the frailties of age pick them off one by one. But the improbabilities with which the play’s riddled, plus the playful convention of having each working girl, as she dies, enter the great whorehouse in the sky with a shimmy and a lewd song, weigh the action down till it’s squashed into near nonexistence. As a result, neither our empathy for the women nor the drama of their survival can build to any intensity. What Vogel’s script does offer, however, are lavish opportunities for five golden-age working girls in the less spiritually demeaning field of acting, and the cast of David Esbjornson’s somewhat ramshackle production seizes every chance knowingly and joyfully, with Katherine Helmond and Marylouise Burke reveling in the best of Vogel’s material, and Priscilla Lopez (a late arrival to the cast, and only golden-age in musical-comedy years), bringing off what amounts to the lead tragic role with a power that periodically invests Vogel’s gimmicky game with real passion.



mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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Screen Test

Simply, this third incarnation of the Annual Spitting-Nails Movie Trivia Quiz in the Stuart Byron tradition is designed to separate the cine-literate from the moppets, and so it must be, with so many cheating opportunities so blithely available. Questions easily answerable through a handy book or a trip to the video store were discarded; Net data sources will only be useful to the dogged cross-referencer. TV movies are generally admissible; feel free to one-up our answers. The deadline: May 31. You can mail your entry to the Voice offices. The prize: a $150 gift certificate at the bookshop or video store of your choice. Of course, all Voice employees are ineligible, as are the few scholars who helped us with suggestions.


Family Viewing

1. Name 20 pairs of acting sisters who appeared together in a film.

2. Name six twin-brother moviemaking teams.

3. What two brothers took turns playing a vintage mystery series hero?

4. What busy stuntman and stunt coordinator is the grandson of one of the Gashouse Gang (a/k/a the 1936 St. Louis Cardinals), who himself became a stuntman after leaving baseball?


Moment by Moment

5. Name the movie in which

a. Christopher Walken crashes a white van.

b. Kirk Douglas searches for a severed finger.

c. Humphrey Bogart sports a mustache.

d. Jessica Lange takes a bubble bath.

e. Gaston Modot throws a toy giraffe out a window.

f. Robert Duvall swings on a playground swing in a priest’s frock.

g. Woody Allen skins an apple.

6. Name the movie in which, offscreen

a. Jon Voight performs cunnilingus.

b. Miriam Hopkins gets whipped.

c. Franchot Tone gets his fingernails ripped off.

d. Cloris Leachman is tortured with pliers.

e. Kevin Bacon overturns a car.

f. Thomas Mitchell bumps into garbage cans.

7. In what avant-garde classic did

a. Two women play chess on the beach?

b. An atomic explosion get intercut with surfers?

c. A starfish figure prominently?

d. No images appear at all, but instead alternating white and black frames?

e. Two hands holding a cocktail shaker serve as a doorbell?


Walking and Talking

8. In what movie were these immortal lines uttered, and by whom?

a. “What could go wrong with an old-fashioned?”

b. “Hunger’s a good sign.”

c. “I hate the dawn. The grass always looks as though it’s been out all night.”

d. “Men are lucky we don’t bite their heads off after mating. . . .”

e. “Some of them are named Samuels, some of them have . . . funnier names.”

f. “. . . Wyoming.”

g. “If it’s a caper, eat it.”


Storyville

9. What films were based on these novels?

a. The Hunter

b. The Children of Light

c. Conjure Wife

d. Burn Witch Burn

e. The King’s Ransom

f. Make Room! Make Room!

g. Once Off Guard

h. Fool’s Gold

i. Red Alert

j. X vs. Rex

10. Name 10 poets who have had their poetry (not their dramatic verse) adapted into movies.


Exotica

11. In how many sound films did Boris Karloff never utter a word of English?

12. Who is known as “the Jewish Cowboy”?

13. Where does the John Landis in-joke title “See You Next Wednesday” appear in National Lampoon’s Animal House?

14. What actor has played

a. Satan, Pontius Pilate, and Judas?

b. Buffalo Bill, Jules Verne, and Louis XIV?

c. Mary Magdalene, Lola Montes, and Scheherazade?

d. Danton, Julius Caesar, and Lenin?

e. Ramses I, John Wilkes Booth, and Henry IV?

f. Adolf Eichmann, Jesus, and Chopin?

15. What all-American director helped liberate a concentration camp, and which one?

16. What three filmmakers are tied for having won the most awards at Cannes over the years?