Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through July 23
Phone: 773-281-8463 x 6
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The best things about the Midwest premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s “Paradise Blue” at TimeLine Theatre are some of the performances, the immersive scenic design by Brian Sidney Bembridge, and the original music composed by Orbert Davis and recorded by him and members of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
The play, which is part of Morisseau’s cycle about Detroit, her hometown, and had its world premiere at the 2015 Williamstown Theatre Festival, still seems like a work in progress. The plot is clichéd; the first act is too long and repetitive, and were it not for the level of acting, the characters would come across as stereotypes. Ron OJ Parson directs with a sure hand, but the playwright’s penchant for waxing poetic often interferes with the action being believable.
Set in the Paradise nightclub in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood in 1949, the drama centers around Blue (Al’Jaleel McGhee), the gifted but troubled trumpeter who inherited it when his father, also a trumpeter, died. It’s in a prime location in Paradise Alley, a strip of mostly black-owned clubs and other businesses, but has seen better days. Under the new mayor, the city is buying up property as part of an urban renewal project to clean-up the area, and Blue is thinking of selling out, unbeknownst to his house band comprised of piano player Corn (Ronald L. Conner) and percussionist P-Sam (Charles Andrew Gardner). Blue’s devoted woman, Pumpkin (Kristin E. Ellis), who takes care of the club and cooks and cleans for the people who rent rooms upstairs, also has been kept in the dark.
The first act gets bogged down in discussions about a musician who either quit the band or was fired because he didn’t like Blue’s business practices, how Corn and P-Sam are going to handle the situation, and the larger issues of the city’s plan, the racism involved, and the possibility of blacks keeping control of their businesses and homes. We also witness Blue’s inflexibility, hair-trigger temper and “my way or the highway” attitude. The person we come to care about, though, is Pumpkin, who loves Black Bottom and taking care of people, and who also likes to read aloud poetry that reflects her longings and dreams, even if the others don’t understand it.
Then a mysterious woman arrives from Louisiana. Flamboyantly dressed and calling herself Silver (Tyla Abercrumbie), she pulls out a wad of cash to rent a room from Blue, who immediately sizes her up as trouble. Rumors quickly swirl around the seductive “black widow” and what happened to her late husband. After asking Pumpkin if one of the men is hers and learning Blue is, she goes after the other two, especially widower Corn.
Why Silver is there and what she wants becomes one preoccupation of the second act. The other is Blue’s increasingly violent, unpredictable outbursts. We know he’s consumed by demons but the explanation as to exactly why is a long time coming and emerges only when Corn explains to Silver.
Meanwhile, Pumpkin suffers both because she wants to help Blue and doesn’t seem to be able to and because his behavior is putting her in danger. One of the oddest, most unconvincing twists is that Silver’s efforts to bond with Pumpkin take the form of forcefully insisting that the shy young woman learn how to use a gun.
On press night, a missed lighting cue (Bembridge’s lighting design isn’t as convincing as his set) messed up the ending and left a lot of us in the audience baffled. That’s sort of how I felt all evening. While Ellis makes the reserved Pumpkin the most endearing character, and Abercrumbie is all slinky moves and smoky voice as Silver, McGhee’s Blue—albeit frighteningly intense—is such a self-centered, nasty piece of work that I found it impossible to care about him or what happens to him. Gardner leans toward stock character as P-Sam, but Conner’s Corn makes a mark as a nice guy who finds his faith in Blue betrayed and makes a most difficult decision.