Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven: It’s not always easy to leave the past behind. Sometimes, we’re even haunted by the past. So it is with Blue, the owner of a jazz club in Paradise Valley in the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit. The year is 1949 and real estate is at a high premium in this most desirable part of town. The problem is that Blue is not only haunted by the past, but plagued with demons in Dominique Morisseau’s play “Paradise Blue.”
The exposition of this wonderful, though flawed, play starts as a dry history lesson, which is not a good way to grab audience attention. However, with the soulful sounds of a bluesy trumpet, it doesn’t take long to digest the facts and get into the rising action. Blue, played with fiery eruptions by Stephen Tyrone Williams, is an outstanding trumpet player. He is frustrated because he just can’t reach that “supreme love” note. It’s the ultimate note. Part of the reason for that is deep seated in his past. He is mentally unstable and an egomaniac to boot.
An enchanting Margaret Odette plays Pumpkin, the woman in Blue’s life. She cares deeply for the bombastic-tempered musician and literally does everything for him. This includes cooking meals, cleaning the club, and singing on Blue’s demand. Pumpkin is a poet at heart and though we never see or hear evidence of Blue abusing her, which is definitely a flaw within this intriguing play, we do know that she deserves better. P-Sam, smitten with Pumpkin and played with a sensitive heart by Freddie Fulton, lets the audience know that Pumpkin is a gifted woman who should not be leading such a hard life.
It is Carolyn Michelle Smith as Silver, a naughty and haughty black widow (literally and figuratively) — who walks the walk and talks the talk. As soon as she struts onto stage, the audience is wowed by her sultry persona and her no-nonsense attitude. She takes to the soft spoken, kind-hearted Corn, played by Leon Addison Brown, and she becomes a strong influence in Pumpkin’s life. Silver teaches the young woman how to handle a gun. It is a lesson well learned.
Overall, there’s so much good about the performances of these fine actors and the strong character development that the playwright has sketched in detail and filled in with vibrant color, that it’s a shame that there are important missing elements. Theater-goers will sense the influence of Ibsen’s strong-willed women and will hear the lyrical language of August Wilson. There’s a memorable experience here even with the flaws; so one can just imagine what can happen with another rewrite.
Long Wharf’s production is worth the ticket. Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set is so spectacular that it earned a spontaneous applause when the bedroom scene opened. Lex Liang’s costumes are character-appropriate and Oona Curley’s lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s sound design accent the action in all the right places. Alphonso Horne provides some steaming jazzy compositions and Awoye Timpo insightfully directs the entire production with emphasis on the unforgettable characters.
This production plays through Dec. 16. Box office: 203-787-4282.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]