- Nelly Don – The Musical Movie
- Directed by: Terence O’Malley
- Starring: Julie Pope, T. Eric Morris, Tim Ahlenius
- Musical| NR | 1 hr 51 min
There’s a new musical in town for the fall, and no, I’m not talking about the forthcoming and potentially disastrous Wonka. Local production Nelly Don – The Musical Movie, opens this weekend in Kansas City, and it’s a wonderful example of local stories brought to life through film.
Nelly Don’s greatest asset is the fascinating story of its titular heroine. Born in the small southeast Kansas town of Parsons in 1886, Nell Donnelly Reed (portrayed in the film by Julie Pope) was a fashion designer who moved to Kansas City at the turn of the century and cornered the market on stylish clothes for women intended specifically for home use. Until Nell came along, women had essentially no sartorial choice at home outside “rags,” as the film’s cast describes, and her clothes flew off the shelves almost immediately.
By 1931, the Donnelly Garment Company was producing more than 1.5 million dresses per year and selling those dresses in more than 2,500 stores internationally, and by the mid 1950s, Nell’s company became the largest manufacturer of women’s clothing worldwide. Throw in a rocky relationship with her philandering, alcohol-dependent husband (Paul Donnelly, portrayed by T. Eric Morris), a harrowing kidnapping in December 1931, and a subsequent marriage to United States Senator and former Kansas City Mayor James A. Reed (portrayed by Tim Ahlenius), you’ve got yourself a story ripe for adaptation.
Not surprisingly, Nell’s rise to prominence coincided with the climax of the women’s suffrage movement, and her story demonstrates multiple aspects of the changing tide of gender roles and dynamics in the United States in the early 20th century. Nell herself proved that women could be just as savvy in business as men given the opportunity (perhaps savvier given the multiple “businessmen” who initially scoffed at her products), and her dresses provided women an avenue, however small, to take back some agency. Of course, those issues are still present today, but that’s why stories like Nell’s are so important to tell.
There’s something charming about the experience of watching Nelly Don on film—it’s like getting an exclusive screening of a local Kansas City Repertory Theatre production, and that’s exactly how it should feel. I’d venture to guess nobody at Nelly Don had grand visions of the film becoming a bigtime theater hit, but that’s not really the point. The point is that it had a specific story to tell Kansas Citians about an important figure in their town’s history, and it is doing so in joyous and accessible fashion. Nelly Don was originally a stage musical produced in 2019, and its success led to this film adaptation. Despite pandemic setbacks, and through the effort of about 100 Kansas City-area cast and crew, Nelly Don made it to screen, and that’s worthy of admiration and celebration.
Nelly Don – The Musical Movie opens this Friday, September 29, at the following local theaters: AMC Theaters Studio 28 (Olathe), AMC Barrywoods 24 (KCMO Northland), Glenwood Arts Theatre (Overland Park), Screenland Armour (North Kansas City), and the Union Station Extreme Screen (KCMO).