From Bama to Broadway

Ensemble member Chelsea Reynolds in costume. Photo credit Charles Moncrief.
Ensemble member Chelsea Reynolds in costume. Photo credit Charles Moncrief.

From the February 2016 Desktop News | Before going to Broadway, the seductive history of New Orleans’ red light district, The Countess of Storyville, will come to life on stage at The University of Alabama. Margot Astrachan, the 2014 Tony Award-winning producer for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, is producing the show, which will run Feb. 16–20 at the Marian Gallaway Theatre.

The musical, though still in development, tells the story of Countess Willie Dupree, an orphan raised in Paris who returns to her native New Orleans in order to open a brothel in the early 1900s.

“She comes back right in the middle of Storyville in its heyday,” Astrachan said. “And when she does, her whole life—her past life—is gradually revealed.”

As Dupree tries to keep her business alive, she learns about her mother’s past, has to contend with the greedy big boss of the town, and ultimately finds herself tangled in the Honduran revolution.

Martin Silvestri, Joel Higgins, and R.M. Cohen are the creative minds behind The Countess of Storyville. Silvestri wrote the music, Higgins the lyrics, and Cohen the book. Tony-nominated Mark Waldrop is directing this production, and Tony-nominated Denis Jones has choreographed it.

While UA faculty, staff, and students have done most of the costume, set, light, and props design, seven professional actors from New York and Los Angeles will play the lead roles. The cast also has two members from UA faculty, two members from the Tuscaloosa community, and 18 student actors.

Ensemble member Sandra Gates in costume. Photo credit, Charles Moncrief.
Ensemble member Sandra Gates in costume. Photo credit Charles Moncrief.

Mary Catherine Waltman, a senior majoring in musical theatre, plays the largest student role in the production—a young ingénue named Celine. Waltman’s character comes to New Orleans hoping to make something of herself and winds up working at the brothel of the Countess Willie Dupree.

Because the show is still in development, Waltman and the other actors have to adapt nearly every day.

“This will be the world premiere of the whole production,” Dominic Yeager, the University’s director of theatre management, said. “So the script is completely organic. Every day, people are getting new lines and new lyrics.”

Though the constant change has been challenging for the students, Waltman said the collaboration has been exciting.

“It’s neat to have the whole team that made this happen sitting there with you,” she said. “You feel like you’re creating something entirely new.” And they are.

Astrachan has been enthusiastic about working with the students from the beginning.

“I know what kids can do,” she said. “If you believe in them, you get really good work out of them.”

In all, this production has the professional theatre world talking.

“The theatre community is pricking up their ears,” Astrachan said, “because this is a wonderful way to develop new work. Everybody is saying, ‘University of Alabama, really? It’s not just football.’”