More than a century after she made the first of the house dresses that would launch a fashion empire — and 86 years after giving birth to a U.S. senator’s illegitimate son and being kidnapped — Nell Donnelly Reed is ready to take her musical comedy bow.
The life of the founder of Kansas City-based Nelly Don, once the world’s largest manufacturer of women’s clothing, is being celebrated in a new musical being given a one-night-only reading on Saturday, July 1, at Musical Theater Heritage in Crown Center. The free performance is sold out.
The driving force behind the production is Terence O’Malley, her great-nephew and an expert on the Nelly Don saga, having created the documentary “Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time” (which back in 2006 played for seven months in Kansas City) and written a book about his famous relation (1889-1991).
For years, O’Malley said, he has been approached about writing a dramatic screenplay about her. It was his wife who suggested a musical adaptation, “and I immediately recognized that this was the way to tell a complicated story with lots of layers,” he said.
To create “Nelly Don,” O’Malley — who has penned the book and lyrics — teamed up with local musician and composer Daniel Doss and MTH director Tim Scott.
The three point out that this production, starring Kansas City actress Ashley Pankow, will be bare-bones, sans settings, costuming and choreography. The objective of Saturday’s reading is to see what works and what doesn’t.
“We want to see where the audience is leaning forward,” Scott said, “where we need to work on the script, where the fat can be trimmed.”
Even without the usual theatrical eye candy, “Nelly Don” should wow audiences with its spectacular rags-to-riches story.
The musical encompasses not only the one-time stenographer’s creation of a worldwide enterprise (employees at her KC factory were so happy with their pay, work conditions, health care and pension plan that they repeatedly voted against unionization) but also her eyebrow-raising personal life.
Her first marriage, to Paul Donnelly, was marred by his alcoholism and womanizing. In 1931, Nell Donnelly became pregnant by her married neighbor, James A. Reed, a former Kansas City mayor and U.S. senator who would become her second husband.
That same year, she and her chauffeur were kidnapped. The authorities had few clues, so Reed personally pressured local mob boss John Lazia, whose thugs spread out across the city, eventually finding and freeing the captives
“If this wasn’t a true story you wouldn’t believe it,” marveled Scott. “What a complicated and theatrical life … so ripe for musical adaptation. And it’s pretty great to be on the ground floor of a musical in its infancy.”
There’s also a business angle behind Saturday’s presentation. “We’ve invited VIPs from nationally known production companies,” O’Malley said. “The hope is to put our musical on the market for production.”
O’Malley is putting together a prospectus with vintage photos from his own collection, Nelly Don advertisements and other visual elements that will be made available to companies that would like to mount the show.
Composer Doss, who at Saturday’s reading will provide piano accompaniment for the singers, knew nothing of Nell Donnelly Reed until O’Malley approached him.
“But I was struck immediately by the story’s significance to Kansas City, and in the same way a painter uses certain colors I immediately heard certain colors I wanted to create musically.”
There is, for example, a scene set in a speakeasy that allowed Doss to come up with music reflecting the city’s jazz scene.
And Doss urged the creation of a five-woman girl group — the Donnettes — who serve as a Greek chorus, fashion models and narrators of the tale.
Though it’s his first stab at a musical, O’Malley (a full-time lawyer with a part-time gig tickling the ivories at a local night spot) said the process has been gratifying.
“A musical allows you to cover a lot more territory. This is a woman’s story. This is a business story. It’s a forbidden love story. It’s a crime story. It’s even about race — Nell promised her chauffeur, who was black, that if they survived the kidnapping he would have employment for the rest of his life.
“And on top of it all there’s the fashion element. Nell might have been a success if she had made table lamps or widgets … but how great is it that she devoted her life to making women more beautiful through her fashions?”
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.