Veterans of Broadway help bring a Louisiana story to life this month at The Orpheum.
After successful workshop performances in Lafayette, Jambalaya, the Musical is making its world premiere in New Orleans at the Orpheum Theatre.
The new Cajun-flavored musical was locally produced in Lafayette by a team of Grammy and Tony award winners, including director Nancy Gregory, music director and Songwriter Hall of Famer Jeff Barry, and set designer Joe Stewart (Friends, The Ellen Degeneres Show). Actor Paul Bello, who plays Gris Gris in Jambalaya, describes the opportunity to work alongside these polished industry vets as “kind of like the mountain coming to Muhammad.”
For Bello and his fellow castmates, Jambalaya is more than a gig. It’s deep rooted backwater pride and a once in a lifetime opportunity. “I mean the odds of something like this happening blows my mind," he says. "Someone of Nancy Gregory’s stature and of Jeff Barry, Kennard Ramsey, and Michael Shapiro’s stature decided to write a show about Creole and Cajun culture and deciding that they were going to come to Louisiana and cast an entire Louisianian cast. That never happens! So for them to come paddling down and scooping us out of the swamp, it’s just wonderful good fortune”
The original cast spent six weeks rehearsing in Lafayette, followed by a workshop performance in which more than 1,000 locals came out on a Wednesday night in the aftermath of the one of the worst floods this part of the country has seen in over 100 years. Bello says even before the actors came out for bows, the audience was already giving a standing ovation. “The show is very, very funny--it’s as funny as it is poignant in places," he says. "I think one of the concerns that might be when you do a show that focuses on a particular ethnic set--well, you want to be damn sure that it’s something believable and something that doesn’t offend. This audience in Lafayette were on their feet as we were coming out for bows. They caught every joke, and aww'd at every poignant moment.”
The focus on Cajun culture in Jambalaya is a highlight for locals who will get a chance to hear the familiar musical styles they grew up with on a Broadway stage. Bello says that while it’s very accessible to a mainstream audience, the Cajun-inspired show remains true to southern Louisiana character. “The majority of the cast consists of millennials, so it’s music and idiom that is extremely accessible and familiar to their ears yet while also having some real Cajun, rhythm and blues, zydeco music in it, which is written in a more mainstream way,” Bello says.
Jambalaya also confronts the issues surrounding the loss of Cajun culture and multi-generational disconnection. In the show, millennials join forces with older generations in order to preserve and protect Cajun culture, but the concern transcends the stage to Louisianians who experience that same struggle today. Bello explains that the loss of culture starts with the loss of language. “It starts with the language, and when people lose their language they start to lose their soul," he says. "We've fought against that for a 100 years, and being a strong people we've always managed to maintain that and preserve the culture even in the face of losing our language and the influx of foreigners. The big concern now is losing our young people because tradition requires delivery to another generation.'Tradition' actually means delivery, comes from the Latin word for delivery, and if you don't have anybody to deliver to, it become inactive. This is something that resonates nationwide in small, close knit communities, small towns and farming communities across the countries. It's by no means limited to Louisiana; it's speaks to a struggle nationwide.”
Jambalaya, the Musical has hopes to one day tour the nation, and hopefully one day bring a bit of Cajun flavor to New York, but for now you can catch the new musical at the Orpheum for a limited run now through December 23.