Following the 2019 Musical, the Nelly Don Story Returns as a Film

still from “Nelly Don: the Musical Movie”

Terence O’Malley’s “Nelly Don: the Musical Movie” hits several local screens this fall 

Terence O’Malley wears a lot of hats — lawyer, author, local historian, boogie piano player — but his most recent one has been director. His film, “Nelly Don: the Musical Movie,” presents the story of dressmaking doyenne Nell Quinlan Donnelly Reed, whose empire sold in the millions by the 1930s and whose life was a “who’s who” of early 20th-century Kansas City.  

Four years ago, O’Malley, Nelly Don’s great-nephew, presented her story as “Nelly Don: The Musical.” The show, accompanied by a book by O’Malley and music by Daniel Doss, played at the MTH Theater for a two-week run to enthusiastic houses in March 2019. After being courted by various, or in O’Malley’s description, dubious, filmmakers, O’Malley rolled up his sleeves and undertook writing, producing and directing the film, taking Doss with him as musical director.  

Terence O’Malley on the set of “Nelly Don: the Musical Movie” (Ellen Baty)

O’Malley’s trust in Doss, the musical director of the New Theatre & Restaurant, whose musical theatre pedigree includes national tours of “Ragtime” and “The Color Purple,” is well-rewarded. Together, they recorded the cast performing the original songs in a studio at Avila College; later in production, the cast lip-synced to their own voices. “They’re really Broadway-quality voices,” O’Malley says of his cast. “We have a group of five woman called the Don-etts. They propel the story. They’re like Nelly’s Greek Chorus.” 

Pacing, in the transition from live theater to film, proved O’Malley’s primary challenge. “First of all, in a musical play between musical numbers, there is a ‘play-off.’ It’s a musical interlude while the audience is applauding, but that’s not necessary in a film.” A few times in the film, O’Malley says, he and Doss broke the fourth wall “just as if we were in a live theater.” The choice, he admits, wasn’t consciously planned but arose organically in production. 

Some elements of Nelly Don’s life might surprise audiences. In 1931, Don and her chauffeur were kidnapped and, with the aid of some of Kansas City’s notorious underworld characters, freed within 48 hours. O’Malley refers to his 2006 book, “Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time,” in naming the kidnappers — Martin “Deputy” Depew, Walter Werner and Charles Mele — whose crime was among an “epidemic of kidnappings” of the Depression ’30s. There is, in the film, a “veiled reference” to Depew, a bigamist who was extradited from the American consulate in South Africa, where he’d gone seeking work. 

Still from “Nelly Don: the Musical Movie”

“Whether the film succeeds,” O’Malley says, “we have a showcase for the music and for the story.” Pivotal to that story was the disintegration of Nelly Don’s marriage to WWI vet Paul Donnelly and her affair with a neighbor, politician James A. Reed, with whom she had a son, David, (with its own backstory that probably deserves its own film). O’Malley had David’s tacit approval in telling his mother’s story.  

For a life that included kidnapping, marital infidelity and patriarchal attitudes against women entrepreneurs, the film shoulders the darkness with empathy, and more than 20 songs. The movie, shot lovingly, in recognizable locations and revered institutions, ends with a fashion show, O’Malley says. He laughed when I asked him about the film being family-friendly. 

“This was an effort to tell it like it was, capture the essence of it. And present it in a way that is empathetic. I think that keeps the wolves at bay as far as satisfaction.” 

“Nelly Don: The Musical Movie” opens Sept. 29 at Glenwood Arts Theatre, Screenland Armour, and the Union Station Extreme Screen. Tallgrass Film Center in Wichita, Kansas, will screen the film Nov. 17 and 18 with a director Q&A. For more information, visit nellydon.com. 

Mel Neet

Mel Neet is a writer who lives in Kansas City. She has had residencies with Kansas City's Charlotte Street Foundation and with Escape to Create in Seaside, Fla. Her byline has appeared in “Pitch Weekly,” “The Kansas City Star” and “Brooklyn Rail.”

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