"Historians can never find metaphors that aren't boring to explain New Orleans to outsiders," says former Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard, one of the New Orleanians portrayed in Nine Lives: A Musical Witness of New Orleans. Minyard (Paul Sanchez) says his metaphor for the city is a bloody mary. It's a mix of ingredients that might not seem like they should go together, but they do. It's pretty damn tasty, he adds.
Presented in a recent three-night run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, Sanchez's musical is an adaptation of Dan Baum's best-selling book, Nine Lives, which chronicles the lives of nine New Orleanians over the course of four decades, from Hurricane Betsy to Hurricane Katrina. Baum compiled the information for his profiles while in the Crescent City on assignment for The New Yorker in 2005.
The musical's narrative is chronological and features a blend of storytelling, singing and live music. The stories include the history of a father-son duo, a bar owner, the widow of a famous Mardi Gras Indian chief, Minyard and Bill Grace, who once reigned as Rex. We get to see them as multifaceted people who are scared, determined and resilient in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
One of the most interesting and layered characters was Joann Guidos (Michael Cerveris, pictured). The show documents Guidos' gender transformation, and the events that led to her opening the St. Claude Avenue bar, Kajun's Pub. In the days after Katrina, Kajun's became a refuge for those who didn't evacuate. There's a famous saying: "Comedy is tragedy plus time." In Nine Lives, there's another more offbeat saying: "Take the advice of a drag queen," which is given to Joann at a party. It helps her coming-out process. Cerveris was hilarious, giving Joann a mix of vulnerability and brashness.
Shamarr Allen played Wilbert Rawlins Jr. who dedicates his life to teaching music. As Katrina comes, he focuses his efforts on making sure each of the students has a place to go. When Allen plays trumpet in this show, it's magical as he holds notes impossibly long. The music is both joyful and strong and it says a lot about the Nine Lives story.
The minimal set included a few tables on which stood bottles of vodka and whiskey. Positioned at the side of the stage, the band featured a saxophonist, trombonist, violinist and other players. The minimal staging worked beautifully because it allowed the audience to focus on the show's emotion. Although the characters' narratives don't intersect, they interacted with each other in the background, which had the look and feel of old friends meeting at a bar.
Nine Lives probes deeply into the heart of the city ("This is a great place to be sad," says one character), but it's also very funny. The entire cast offered excellent performances: Sanchez was charming; as Wilbert "Da" Rawlins, Vance Vaucresson had the crowd in his palm. As Irma Thomas, Erica Falls' singing brought the house down; when she belted out "When things are bad, they could have been worse," the audience seemed to share a collective moment. — TYLER GILLESPIE