A show set in a bordello raises certain expectations: One would expect a little sex. And if the house of ill repute happened to be located in the Storyville district of New Orleans during the fabled era of the early 1900s, when American jazz was struggling to be born from the sounds coming up from cotton fields, churches, chain gangs and riverboats, expectations would run even higher — not merely for sex, but for the music of sex as a life force.
And yet, while this well-mannered musical by the late Thomas Babe (“Kid Champion,” “A Prayer for My Daughter,” “Fathers and Sons”) and Mildred Kayden (“Ionescopade,” “Vanity Fair”) has some nice things going for it — a stylish look, a literate book, characters almost operatic in their conception and songs faithfully suggesting the rich musical diversity of the period — the ferocity of human sexuality and its death-defying musical language barely registers.
Given the ripe ingredients of the melodramatic plot, it didn’t have to be this way. In a story that follows the Perils of Pauline travails of a high-toned but unlucky whorehouse madam who calls herself Agnes Du Maurier (Tamara Tunie), the action begins in St. Louis with the murder of an abusive client. Hustled off to New Orleans by the Professor (Eugene Fleming), the house piano player who mutely adores her, Madam Du Maurier opens a classy establishment under the name of Madam Mary Robards and acquires a valuable property in 17-year-old Kathleen (Christiane Noll) — her own daughter, unbeknownst to her.
Although the girl finds a champion in Papa LeBecque (Caesar Samayoa), one of those creepy photographers who give the French Quarter a bad name, she also is being stalked by the whoremaster Tom Anderson (Julian Gamble), whose wooing of Kathleen comes down to blackmailing her mother.
Completing this stacked deck, Mary finds herself falling in love with Henry Hitchcock (Sean McDermott), who presents himself as an old-fashioned gent (repulsed by the “spasm band noise” emanating from the hot little trio in the bordello parlor), but who is actually the brother of a man who was murdered in St. Louis and is hell-bent on vengeance.
Instead of giving itself up to the Grand Guignol elements of the juicy plot, Kent Gash’s production seems more intent on sanitizing them. With the exception of a naked horsewhipping scene (and even that little gem is sedately staged), nothing really fun happens in this bordello.
In songs like “No Holdin’ Back” and “Catering,” the provocatively dressed but absurdly wholesome fancy ladies in the gloomy and oddly empty establishments testify to the delights of their trade — and Angela Robinson’s enthusiastic delivery as Pia convinces you that she, for one, is up for this energetic work. But the lyrics are discreetly shy of particulars, the academically correct music (cakewalk followed by rag followed by gospel shout followed by operetta duet followed by funeral dirge followed by barrelhouse blues …) rarely plunges into dangerous or even surprising territory, resulting in performances in which everyone seems a bit morose about indulging their passions.
Tunie looks elegant in her blood-red gowns and gives clear voice (in songs like “Never Gonna Run Again”) to Robards’ yearnings to escape her unsavory past and reinvent herself as a high-class madam. But it’s a one-note performance of a character so morally rigid (and musically restricted from taking any pleasure in her profession) that she might be more comfortable running a convent. McDermott has an easier time of it with the more conflicted character of Hitchcock, who in “Chilling Stream, Drink” gets to sing the show’s darkest song.
Although the cast is vocally strong, the performers fail to find any deeper dimensions in their characters. Like Noll, who is all innocence when Kathleen is defending her mother and can only manage a pretty pout when she is forced to betray her, they bring scant nuance to characters who have little dimension to begin with.
But this doesn’t really surprise in a show that aims to celebrate the melding of New Orleans’ rich musical styles but can manage only a single number — an amalgam of the jazzy “Buddy Bolden’s Horn” and title gospel song “Call the Children Home” — that succeeds at saying more than one thing at a time.