“The Ballad of Buffalo Bayou” closer to production after Tryon Depot reading

Published 5:20 pm Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How do you fill the Tryon Depot for a table reading of a for-Broadway musical without any publicity? The show’s creator, Sonja Karlsen, said, “As Ringo Starr would say, ‘With a little help from my friends.’” The May 26 reading was the first time Sonja had heard her new show – “The Ballad of Buffalo Bayou” – performed in front of a live audience.

The musical includes a cast of characters (Big Mama, Lucky, Christabel, Raphael, and many others) displaced to Houston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The play unfolds in a barbershop and a café in 2015, ten years after the storm.

Asked what inspired her to write it, Sonja said, “During the Katrina disaster, I watched the horrible events unfolding on television and was both saddened and appalled. Among all the other destruction, there was a women’s shelter that was washed or blown away. It was a shelter for homeless women and women who had been abused and battered. In the days that followed, we heard reports that people were being displaced to other states. My question was: Where did the women in this shelter go? Did they wind up in Michigan, living with a strange family? Were they rehabilitated by love? Did they wind up back on the street or back in the hands of another batterer? I wondered and still wonder about them. In my mind, Big Mama was living there at the time of the storm.”

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Sonja began writing Buffalo Bayou in late fall of 2015. “It took me about three months. The music took another three months, but work is ongoing, however, and never stops. We are working on orchestrations at present. I say ‘we’ because of my musical collaboration with Steve Smith, my conductor and musical director, a composer and teacher of music theory at Mannes Conservatory in New York City, and Vinny Corda, musician, computer expert, and owner of the Red Door Recording Studio in Columbus.”

Vinny Corda’s wife, Lori Corda, had played the lead role in Sonja’s previous production of the musical, Bernadette, staged at the Tryon Fine Arts Center. Lori provides an other-than-writer perspective of Sonja’s creative process vis-à-vis Buffalo Bayou: “I’m trying to remember when the show first came to her, and I say ‘came to her’ because it was one of those times when, as an artist, you are truly the instrument or vessel where the art just moves through you. When Sonja was in New York, we would Skype each other, and I would just listen as she relayed another new scene or an entire song she had written the night before.

“It just comes alive right in front of your eyes without any costumes or scenery. It is an incredibly moving show taking you through the lives of people; families from New Orleans that migrated to Houston when they had to vacate, the connections they have with their hometown: the food, the music, and how they bring that with them to Houston. It’s about people coming from hard times and how they lift themselves up. It’s about a community working together to be the best they can be.”

Bernadette involved, among other things, the healing power of Lourdes in France, and in Buffalo Bayou, there’s a role for an undercover angel – Gabriel.

The Tryon Depot reading was an important milestone toward Buffalo Bayou’s realization. Sonja said, “I was able to visualize how scene changes could be handled smoothly and efficiently. I added a song for Raphael at the beginning of the hospital scene.  I wrote some lyrics for Big Mama and may add them. Having the reading and hearing the words spoken by someone other than myself has brought the work to life, thanks to the courageous cast who did a wonderful job of reading ‘cold’.”

Sonja plans to have “The Ballad of Buffalo Bayou” ready for production by summer’s end, then hopes to stage it at the Tryon Fine Arts Center. Lindsey Moore is on board as scenic director and, judging by the Tryon Depot turnout, a host of others are ready to make it a successful premiere. Between now and then, to offset production costs, a fundraiser is planned for a performance of the music from the show, with New Orleans beignets and coffee served at intermission.

For further information contact Sonja Karlsen at 917-821-1304 or sonjasong@aol.com.

– article submitted by Lee Stockdale