Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol
Also see Fred's review of A Little More Alive
This one, occurring in 1949, takes place in the Black Bottom neighborhood, specifically Paradise Alley, which was home to many jazz clubs such as the one which is focal point for this noir drama. Blue (Blair Underwood, known to many from television's "L.A. Law") has inherited the place from his father who had a multitude of problems. Now, Blue has been offered quite a bit of money ($10,000 or so) to sell. His group is missing a bass player and, for a time, Blue will play solo until another musician is found. Drummer P-Sam (Andre Holland whose film credits include "42" and "Selma") tries to convince Blue to hold onto the club. It is more difficult to read motives of piano-playing Corn (Keith Randolph Smith, who was on Broadway in three August Wilson plays). Actress Kristolyn Lloyd plays Pumpkin, a pretty, young woman who is Blue's girl but has yearnings of her own. She loves to recite poetry. For now, she is a bartender who prepares meals, sweeps the floor ... and otherwise she copes with Blue and his mood swings.
The galvanic, magnetic, and catalytic fifth cast member is named Silver (embodied by De'Adre Aziza who received a Tony nomination for her role in Passing Strange). Silver is positively alluring. She walks slowly and confidently, unafraid to display her curves. Costume designer Clint Ramos has her, fittingly, in blacksave her undergarments which are, themselves, an engaging subset, so to speak. Sensuous and enticing, she is aware of her stature. Coming from Louisiana, she has cash and will pay for a room in the club. Potent and unyielding, she will never back away from Blue and, at one point, tells him that they are similar.
A tortured man, the distressed Blue is oftentimes grappling with haunting spirits, and he is angry. He approaches, at one point, and sees that Pumpkin and P-Sam have eyes for one another. He is suspicious of Silver and probably wishes that she never arrived on the scene. The boldly sexual Silver will never back away. Blue feels Silver is venomous and spider-like in the black widow mode. She also has a gun and she wants the youthful Pumpkin to know how to use it. Blue, meanwhile, grows more desperate with worry, carrying his father's legacy with him. When he plays his instrument, Blue says he hears his motherand chaos. Co-composers Kenny Rampton and Bill Sims, Jr. have written a musical line which is Blue's signature moment time and again.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the talented, award winning actor and director, is at the helm for this small cast work which is very much about a community of people attempting to survive in difficult Detroit. Writer Morisseau is from that city and Santiago-Hudson lived and work there, too. Morisseau's character portrayals are heartfelt and genuine. The powerful and independent Silver carries an air of the unknown with her every step. She draws attention from everyone on stage and those sitting in house seats as well. She will never fade, always transfix.
Morisseau has spoken of August Wilson's impactful plays and their potent meaning for her and for the people living in Pittsburgh, Wilson's city. One of the glowing positives of Paradise Blue is in the portraiture of Morisseau's characters. The interface between, say, P-Sam and Pumpkin (to cite just one example) immediately garners attention. Whenever Silver makes eye contact with another individual on the stage, the scene takes hold. On the other hand, Morisseau's storyline and plotting become problematic. The conclusion of the play is far from inspired.
WTF has assembled five actors, each of whom provides a detailed, knowing performance. Together, they are affecting. Each is physical and the character realizations are drawn with understanding and sensitivity. Passion, when necessary, rules. Designer Neil Patel, utilizing bar stools, an upright piano, a bed, and some lights hanging above, creates a set which is immediately transportive. Director Santiago-Hudson allows the five individuals to actualize and they do so with a balanced combination of emotion and technique.
Paradise Blue continues on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts through August 2nd, 2015. For tickets, call (413) 597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org.
- Fred Sokol