Lights dim as a singer steps into the spotlight. After a beat, she looks at the crowd and sings a sorrowful tune. Then the beat picks up and soon everyone's dancing in Boudin: The New Orleans Music Project, an original show produced by Southern Rep at Ashe Power House.
The brainchild of Sean Daniels, who also directed the show, Boudin is based on solicited responses to the question "How has New Orleans music saved your soul?" That seems like a lot to tackle in a 90-minute piece, but the show pursues answers by weaving songs, stories and history, from the first "jass" recordings to modern rhythm and blues. A great piece of art makes its viewer both think and feel, and Boudin does just that.
Dorian Rush commands the stage and offers one of the show's most charming moments: She sings a James Brown song and relates how, when she used to sing in clubs on Bourbon Street, she actually sang to Brown — by way of someone holding a cellphone with him on the other end of the line. Later, Rush sings a powerful duet of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" with Brittney M. James, a New Orleans native whose love of music started as a child, when she listened to records with her grandmother.
Boudin tries to pack in many stories, and a couple of the performer's arcs end up unbalanced. We find out how music helped Clint Johnson conquer his stutter and how Natalie Jones knew, after singing a duet with a frantic airport worker, that she would move back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The story of Phillip Manuel, who sang backup for Allen Toussaint, isn't as fully realized as it needs to be. These narratives, though, are secondary to the role of music.
Designed by Leah Farrelly, the minimal set of old trunks and rocking chairs becomes a functional piece as performers walk on and offstage and sometimes perform in the aisles. The set also helps showcase a stunning, back-lit map for which cartographer Jakob Rosenzweig took words and phrases from the project's interviews and incorporated them into an outline of New Orleans.
Throughout the show, performers stop the narrative to ask audience members questions. The structure resembles the call and response of some of the city's music traditions. While these interactions are unexpected and fun, they also reinforce the idea that New Orleans is a city where people are accustomed not just to watching but participating in cultural traditions.