With a city filled to the brim with so much culture, people could forget how integral theater is to New Orleans’s identity. The city was home to the first opera house in North America, the French Opera House, which opened in 1859. Until the opera house burned down in 1919, the city was practically on a par with Broadway with many well-known productions bringing their big shows to New Orleans. The city is built upon the bedrock of theater, and therefore two local theater actors are looking to reclaim that former glory in Old Gretna with a local theater festival.
The Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival, which will be located at the new Gretna Cultural Center for the Arts on 740 4th St., will be making its debut with one show, Move It, And It’s Yours!, on April 7 at 7:30 p.m. and another show, Gumbo, on April 8 at 8 p.m. The festival’s creators, New Orleans stage and screen stars Edward R. Cox and Vatican Lokey, were inspired when a New York City-based nonprofit organization called MainStreet Musicals came to the city to put on a show.
“This is a project we have been trying to get off the ground for the past six years,” Vatican Lokey, co-producer and director of Move It, And It’s Yours! for the Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival, said. “In 2011, a company from New York called MainStreet Musicals came down here to produce a concert version of a new musical comedy called Shine! The creator of MainStreet Musicals, Tony-nominated actor Timothy Jerome, came to New Orleans with Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor Hal Linden to star in the production. That’s what introduced us to MainStreet Musicals’ program and got us onto the path of creating a festival here.”
Since 1984, MainStreet Musicals has been accepting dozens of submissions of new works each year and putting these shows through a rigorous adjudication process with a panel of Broadway musical professionals. After a few months, three winners are chosen and sent through the national festival circuit.
“Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival joins over 20 different cities across the United States and in Canada on the festival circuit this year,” Lokey said. “These shows were two of the three winners that were selected for the 2017 festival season by MainStreet Musicals. They had a competition field of about 15 different musicals and the three that were sent out this year were considered the best.”
The first show, Move It, And It’s Yours!, is a fun, sitcom-style show about a middle-aged former musician who is trying to move out of his apartment but is chained there because of his piano. He puts out an offer that anyone can take his piano if they can move it out of the apartment, which results in him meeting a colorful cast of characters in the process.
The second show, Gumbo, is a retelling of the classic Greek tale of Orpheus, but is updated and set in a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
“It is the story of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Hades blended together with what happened before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, as well as the resilience of the characters and the people of the city,” Edward R. Cox, co-producer and director of Gumbo for the Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival, said. “It is a dramatic musical, and because of the level of drama and language and situations—not that it’s nasty or risqué at all—we are saying that that production of Gumbo is for mature audiences only, where as Move It, And It’s Yours! is open to all ages.“
Both Move It, And It’s Yours! and Gumbo are presented under the offices of the Actor’s Equity Association Member’s Project Code, which allows the people involved in the festival to put up productions to showcase their own talents without the restrictions of a regular union contract, which would otherwise be required. The festival is also showcasing a wide collection of local talents including Big Easy Award-winners Idella Johnson, Soline McLain, and Michael Sullivan.
“Everybody is a local, amazingly enough,” Lokey said. “We have some remarkable professional talents in the city who don’t normally appear on the local stages because most of the stages in town aren’t union stages, but they work in films, they work in television, they work in commercials, they work across the country in musicals, in operas, in legitimate stage plays. We’re very lucky to have them.”
Lokey explained that both he and Cox hope to make the Gretna Mainstreet New Music Theatre Festival an annual event that will help to bring together and strengthen New Orleans’s theater community.
“With getting this festival off the ground, we’re hoping to bring something to the New Orleans theater community that the entire community can appreciate, in which they can participate and in which they take pride by the fact that we are now on a national festival circuit,” Lokey said. “We are hoping to establish not only ourselves but also the city of New Orleans as being a theater center where new and original works are regularly produced. We’d like to become the city where people come to see shows before they go everywhere else.”
“Many years ago when I was growing up, we had original shows being produced everywhere along with Broadway staples that audiences wanted to see,” Cox said. “We’d like to get back to the original musicals involving a lot more of our musicians in town who are interested in devoting some time to creating some original musicals that are home-grown. Not just shows coming from MainStreet, but our own home-grown original musicals to be proud of again. We’d like to at least recapture some of that former glory that New Orleans had for the arts, particularly in this day and age.”
“The culture is still there,” Lokey said. “Theater is still in just about every aspect of the city from the music scene that we currently enjoy to Carnival, which could be considered a street theater. Everything about the city is based around theater. We want the city to re-embrace its roots. It’s the theatrical culture that made New Orleans … New Orleans.”
General admission for both shows is $15. Tickets are available for purchase at shows.gretnacca.com.