The Greater New Orleans Area already has many festivals under its belt, and this past weekend, the city of Gretna hosted the start of another for theater enthusiasts.
The Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival, which was produced by New Orleans stage and screen stars Vatican Lokey and Edward R. Cox, is a festival that strives to bring new musicals that wouldn't usually make it to a Broadway audience. Held in the beautiful and spacious Gretna Cultural Center for the Arts, the festival is based on the New York City-established nonprofit organization MainStreet Musicals, which selects three new musicals each year to be sent through the national festival circuit.
The festival showcased two musicals this year and had the creator of MainStreet Musicals, Tony-nominated actor Timothy Jerome, and two of the writers for one of the featured plays Move It, And It's Yours!, Bill Weeden and Sally Fay, in attendance.
On April 7, the Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival opened with its very first performance, Move It, And It's Yours! (directed by Vatican Lokey), a humorous show about a middle-aged former musician named Charlie (played by Chris Turgeon) whose wife is pressuring him to move out of his apartment with her. But he can't leave because he doesn't have enough money to move his baby grand piano. Thinking of a solution, Charlie puts out an ad stating that if someone can move the piano, then it's his or hers for free. This results in his coming into contact with a sizeable collection of weirdos who all barge into his apartment and want to take the piano for their own very different reasons. As he interacts with these people, Charlie is reminded of why he became a musician and the ambitions he had when first starting his music career.
With a stage containing no sets and no practical props, Move It, And It's Yours! relied manly on the strength of its actors and its music, both of which I found enjoyable. Many of the actors played multiple characters and did a good job of going back and forth between the roles they had, like Big Easy Award-winner Soline McLain (who played a religious woman and woman who's in an over-the-top sexual relationship), Wendy Miklovic (who played an aging Broadway starlet and a kleptomaniac), and Nori Pritchard (who played Richard's current wife, as well as two of his ex-wives). They, as well as Big Easy Award-winner Michael Sullivan, along with Preston Meche, Greg Nacozy, and Evan Autin, all presented funny and strange characters that worked well opposite Charlie's straight-man personality. The music was equally fun and bouncy too, although it came from a recording, heavily featuring the piano and shifting styles to fit each character's personality. The music did end up cutting out during one of Chris Turgeon's songs, but he carried on like a professional and finished it a cappella. Move It, And It's Yours! was a fun and charming musical that showed that it's never too late to follow, or revive, your dreams.
The second show to be featured at Gretna's theater festival on April 8, Gumbo (directed by Edward R. Cox), was distinctly more dramatic than the previous show, but still had touches of humor thrown in throughout the performance. A retelling of the classic Greek tale of Orpheus in a New Orleans setting during Hurricane Katrina, Gumbo, which was co-written by New Orleans playwright Christina Quintana, tells the story of Dr. Howard Hart (played by Eric Pollard) and Martha LeDoux (played by Big Easy Award-winner Idella Johnson). Howard and Martha get married on the eve of Katrina. When Howard is called to the hospital, Martha is approached by a mysterious figure named Boss Hades (played by Bryce Smith) who takes her under the floodwaters to his club The Gumbo Pot, which is emceed by the comical duo of Gail Force (played by Vatican Lokey) and Oliver Flood (played by Annette Foulkes), to use her voice to maximize his intake of souls. When Howard discovers Martha is missing, he scours the city looking to save his love.
This musical placed a great importance on showing both the suffering and the resilience of New Orleanians during Katrina, as well as the power of music. The songs in Gumbo have a fitting New Orleans jazz flare to them and each of the large cast of players did a good job with their respective performances. The actors each presented a distinctive vocal style that not only fit with their characters but also helped them to stand out, like Pollard's strong and confident voice, Smith's impressive operatic delivery, Foulkes and Lokey's vaudeville style chops, and especially Johnson's show-stopping, powerhouse vocals. I also liked how most of the side characters, while playing individual characters, mostly served as a Greek chorus, which seemed very fitting given the adaptation they were doing. There were a few times when some of the actors came in early and stepped over each other's lines, but those instances were minimal and the overall talent of the actors helped to keep the story entertaining. Gumbo was an interesting retelling of the Orpheus tale and I'm glad I was able to see it locally and with all local actors.
I'm really happy to have experienced the debut of the Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival. Both shows were enjoyable for different reasons, one for being a laugh riot and the other for the tasty drama and good songs. The casts in both productions did well and I could tell that they were really enjoying themselves while performing. There were a few minor stumbles, sure, but that's a given for any type of premier. I'm confident that the productions will only get even better in years to come and I hope this festival can be a new long-standing annual tradition for the city of Gretna.