By Myra Chanin
The concert version of a new work by husband Jesse Gelber (music, story and sensational orchestrations) and wife Kate Manning (book and lyrics) with enough script included to explain what’s going on with the characters, is a stirring magnum opus in the making – unfortunately misnamed Where All The Rivers Go To Sleep. With a 12-piece orchestra backing up full-throated performers like Carole J. Bufford and Ann McCormack singing New Orleans Inspired Blues (directed by Randal Myler), there was not a closed eye in the house.
Jesse Gelber’s early jazz background and Kate Manning’s interest in musical theater blended in more ways than one. They made sweet music together both off and on stage, got married, and have been working together as performers and songwriters for quite a while. Six years ago they became intrigued with an idea for a script set in Storyville, aka The District, the notorious New Orleans red light area shut down by the Feds in 1917. The time is 1900 at the dawning of jazz, with the musical numbers reflecting the bawdy crucible where operatic arias and marches blended with blues and ragtime, but even in Storyville, which was permissive about everything from drugs to the strangest sexual proclivities, there was one no-no. A black man could not have sex with a white woman even in a brothel. Well, one does. Uh oh. Blame it on voodoo, not as magic but with potions used to cover up the manipulation of real events so they’d pass as supernatural.
Carole J. Bufford, who plays Cora Covington the brothel’s head whore, is one of the most admired young performers in the New York Cabaret and Jazz scene. Rightly lauded in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Bufford’s a southern girl who can warble, belt and wail with the best of them. Co-star Ann McCormack, an equally qualified singer who’s worked with Wynton Marsalis and R&B dynamos Ashford and Simpson, easily holds her own musically as a deserted wife with a newborn baby whom Cora takes under her wing and with whom Cora falls in love. Damian Norfleet, as the deserting and returning husband Joe, has an operatic voice and OMG drop dead handsome looks. Amanda Castanos also caught my eye as the stage left backup singer with such enticing moves that I think she’d be a natural for Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith.
Some of Kate Manning’s lyrics are simply laugh out loud dirty/witty: The self-explanatory How’d You like to Shuck My Oyster, the working girls’ Mid-Coital Musings on how to fake it, and their patrons’ Post-Coital Pleasures extolling the wonders of brandy, cigars and naps are just gems. I particularly loved Gelber’s bluesy, jazzy tunes. I did find the waltzes a bit too La Traviata-ish for the setting but I look forward to seeing subsequent versions of this exciting work in progress.
PTC Performance Space
555 W. 42nd St. 7/18 8 pm, 7/19 noon