It isn't easy to parachute into a culture and fully understand its complexities. Novelists and journalists spend months and years immersing themselves in new locales to be able to write insightfully. Perhaps that is why Jambalaya: The Musical, scripted by Californian and former ballerina Nancy Gregory after three weeks of research, offers plenty of song and dance but very little depth. Cajun culture is like a roux that requires time to develop its flavor.
Related by marriage to a Lafayette native, Gregory had heard stories about Acadian history, folklore, food and music. Her show, presented recently at Orpheum Theater, captures the warmth and joie de vivre of Louisiana and its culture, particularly zydeco music, but it also reduces it all to a consumer package of gumbo, gators and Mardi Gras. Much of the action takes place at Coco's Cafe, where there's always a "party in a pot."
The predictable plot revolves around a shy, young songwriter, Thibodeaux (Andre Trahan), who is trying to break into the music business and is smitten with a popular university student, Danielle (Megan Barrios). She hardly notices him, and he is cheated out of royalties by a greedy Nashville music producer. Naturally, a gris-gris man is brought in to make it all right.
Thibodeaux's grandfather, Boudreaux (Wayne Gonsoulin), wearing a hat and red suspenders, is the Garrison Keillor of the bayou, continually chuckling while dispensing good-natured wisdom and folksy humor. Gonsoulin, a veteran character actor who's appeared in local musical theater, held his own on the main stage. Binny (Shane Guilbeau), a Lafayette native, pulled out the one-liners in a real Cajun accent that gave the show some legitimacy.
Composed by a team of songwriters, including Jeff Barry, Chubby Carrier, Josef Gordon, Clarence Jey, Kennard Ramsey and Roxanne Seeman, Jambalaya's 17 songs are lively, though not necessarily Cajun, as some mix in hip-hop and other musical genres. Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band provided onstage accompaniment.
Jambalaya's best tune was "Lady in the Moon" ("Femme de la Lune"), a wonderfully performed duet between Boudreaux and cafe owner Coco (Cheryl Shelton), with accordion accompaniment. The lady in the moon is a myth about a voodoo queen putting a hex on a French girl who had fallen in love with a Protestant boy. Despairing, the girl flies to the moon where she waits for her beloved.
The dance troupe performed routines at full throttle, but the choreography was only distantly inspired by zydeco and Cajun dancing, both of which are characterized by small steps. There were swings and even jitterbuglike flips that would clear the floor of any Lafayette dance hall.
Audiences outside the Bayou State may be amused by the homegrown jokes, but locals are not so easily charmed. Of course, musicals are not intended to be realistic scenarios, but there should be an underlying element of truth. Bye Bye Birdie, for instance, did not accurately depict all 1950s teen- agers, but its characters were multidimensional and its plot more complex.
Jambalaya would benefit from a deeper dive into Cajun culture and character before returning for a second run in the summer. As one of the characters said, "Dat feel about right," but Jambalaya lacks substance.