Performing Arts

‘Nelly Don: The Musical’ weaves together the astounding life of a Kansas City icon

New musical tells the story of fashion tycoon Nell Donnelly Reed

Nell Donnelly founded the Nelly Don brand, the world's biggest manufacturer of women's clothing back in the day. Now her great-great nephew, Terence O'Malley, is telling the story of her life and career in "Nelly Don: The Musical."
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Nell Donnelly founded the Nelly Don brand, the world's biggest manufacturer of women's clothing back in the day. Now her great-great nephew, Terence O'Malley, is telling the story of her life and career in "Nelly Don: The Musical."

The legacy of Nell Donnelly Reed infiltrated four of the basic food groups of life in 20th century Kansas City — business, politics, crime and scandal.

Sounds like the makings of a good book or movie, right?

Well, Terence O’Malley, her great-great-nephew, has turned the story into both of those (“Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time”). So the next logical step?

Nelly Don: The Musical.”

The play, which will run March 14-31 at MTH Theater at Crown Center, is first and foremost a Kansas City legend.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve always written for a Kansas City audience,” said O’Malley, who also made “Black Hand Strawman,” a documentary and book about the Kansas City mob. “I’ve done that with the films and the books, and it has worked out very well.

“I don’t worry about New York or anywhere else. When they put on a play in New York, they don’t care about Kansas City. So why should I care about New York?”

SECOND OMalley
Playwright Terence O’Malley (left) runs over the score with music director Daniel Doss during a rehearsal for “Nelly Don: The Musical” at MTH Theater in Crown Center. Roy Inman Special to The Star

O’Malley, a Kansas City native and full-time lawyer, is the playwright, lyricist and executive producer of “Nelly Don: The Musical.” He enlisted Daniel Doss, a graduate of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and a well-established conductor and composer, to write the original music and serve as musical director.

The title role, however, will be played by a relative outsider.

Ashley Pankow moved to Kansas City just six years ago from, of all places, New York. After working all over the country in touring companies and at regional theaters, Pankow quickly became one of Kansas City’s leading leading ladies, with credits in musicals and dramas at Starlight Theatre, New Theatre Restaurant, Quality Hill Playhouse and elsewhere.

Last fall she starred in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” for Kansas City Actors Theatre.

nelly don and james a reed
Nell Donnelly and James A. Reed were married in 1933. File photo

Pankow didn’t know the Nelly Don story until she was asked to portray her in a staged reading of “Nelly Don: The Musical” in 2017. She had to audition for the role again in August.

Playing a historical figure has its pluses and minuses, Pankow said.

“You have things to grab onto. You have facts and maybe can talk to people who knew the person you’re playing. At the same time, there can be pressure, too, to get it right.”

Of course, she is now intimately familiar with Nell Donnelly and her importance in Kansas City.

“Her story is too good to be true,” she said. “That’s why it’s great we get to tell it.”

Nell Donnelly was a Kansas City housewife who began designing and selling dresses in 1916 and went on to found the Nelly Don brand that became the world’s biggest manufacturer of women’s clothing. She married James A. Reed, a former Kansas City mayor and U.S. senator, in 1933, two years after giving birth to his child while both were married to other people.

When their son was 3 months old, she and her chauffeur, George Blair, were abducted as their automobile approached the family home (now the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures). With pressure from Reed, local mob boss John Lazia sent 25 carloads of men to search for her. They found and freed the captives within 34 hours.

The play, which O’Malley calls a musical dramedy, covers all of it, although the focus is on the 11 years during which the couple were married, before his death in 1944. Nell Donnelly Reed lived to be 102 and died in 1991.

The Nelly Don dresses that played such an important role in her life — and in Kansas City’s history — are also a big part of the musical.

Nelly Don ad
The Donnelly Garment Co. advertised its designs as being the work of “Nelly Don,” the personality invented by Nell Donnelly. Courtesy Terence O’Malley, from the David Q. Reed family archives

“We open and close with a fashion show,” O’Malley said. “We hope fashion is another character in the play.”

The actual cast numbers 15, supported by a seven-piece orchestra playing original songs ranging from ballads to Italian-themed numbers for scenes in Dante’s Inferno, a nightclub run by Lazia. Call that turn of events a case of poetic license.

“We had to fictionalize it in some ways,” O’Malley said, “because people don’t just break out into song in real life.”

Now that the play is nearing its premiere, Doss, as the musical director, and director Morgan Dayley are mostly running the show.

“It’s one of those things — I’m no longer in control,” O’Malley said. “I’ve given birth to this thing; now I’m a sidebar.”

It is worth noting that “Nelly Don: The Musical” is a union production, though not all the actors are Equity members.

O’Malley said that as executive producer he employs “a small army of 35,” writing the paychecks personally. He has no outside financial backing, but he said area theaters have been generous in their support, and early ticket sales have been encouraging.

In any case, he doesn’t expect to get rich off the project. The Rockhurst High School graduate said his long-term hope is that community and high school theaters will present the musical across Missouri and Kansas.

“It might be presumptuous of me to say it, but I kind of think of this as my gift to Kansas City.”

‘Nelly Don: The Musical’

The show runs March 14-31 at MTH Theater, on the third floor of Crown Center. Tickets are $35-$45 through nellydon.com or by calling 816-221-6987.

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