As New Orleanians, the scent of sweet olive, the taste of crawfish and the beat of the marching band are blended deeply into our DNA. Whether we were born and bred in the city or proudly adopted it as our own, we know one thing: this place is our home.
It is this spirit that is celebrated in “BOUDIN: The New Orleans Music Project” running until May 17 at Ashé Power House Theater. The show is produced by Southern Rep Theatre in partnership with WWOZ, and the script is a collection of narratives gathered from participants who answered a simple question: How has New Orleans music saved your soul?
The play’s director and creator, Sean Daniels, and Southern Rep’s artistic director, Aimée Hayes, curated those stories, and “BOUDIN” was born. Then the show’s musical director, Jay Weigel, took on the Herculean task of whittling down song selections into a 90-minute tribute.
Weigel is to be commended on his bold choice to have a vast majority of the songs performed a cappella. This strips the songs to their essence, and through the brilliance of Weigel’s arrangements and the skills of a terrifically talented cast one still hears the crispness of trumpets, the clean tone of clarinets and some truly glorious harmonies.
The driving force behind the success of these arrangements is Joshua Smith’s wickedly sophisticated beat boxing.
The play’s rotation of performers is strong and confident. Each member of the cast hits at least one number out of the park. For Phillip Manuel, it is his first song, “Big Chief.” In addition, Manuel’s stories about growing up on Valence Street and singing with his family are full of New Orleans lore and legends.
Natalie Jones is effervescent and represents the new energy that so many young people from around the country have added to our city. Her voice packs a surprising punch as she sings Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining.”
Dorian Rush commands the stage, and her version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” iscaptivating. (Maybe she has one too many stories about, “Guess who was listening to me sing on a cell phone.”) She and Brittney James took us to church with their moving rendition of the classic gospel hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” James’ high-octane energy sparked the show and her sensual story about love in the Big Easy was truly tantalizing, as was her version of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.”
The set is sparse and lean, but just like the music, each piece seems handpicked. From a barstool that could have come from the Saturn Bar to an upholstered chair from an Uptown parlor, it subtly captures our city’s rich diversity.
Particularly effective is cartographer Jakob Rosenzweig’s 12-by-8-foot Plexiglas map that plots out the city’s 17 wards. It’s an intricate matrix of musician’s names, song titles and musical venues. Throughout the show the map, which serves as a backdrop to the action, is lit up in a variety of vivid jewel tones from cobalt blue to fiery fuchsia. It’s pure magic.
“Boudin” also finds the perfect way to use audience participation, from a clever drinking game to toasting some of New Orleans’ many ‘unsung’ musicians. In addition, at each show a preselected audience member shares a personal story. On a recent evening, John Green, a relatively new New Orleans transplant, told his tale of hearing King James and The Special Men at BJ’s Lounge.
If this play is to go on to have another run, and one hopes it will, the script will need some polishing and the stories need more delineation. But this is a performance filled with exuberant joy and oh so many reasons why we are proud to call New Orleans home.