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Williamstown Theatre Festival/Audible

Paradise Blue, by Dominique Morrisseau. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.

“I’m fighting for my own piece of life.”

        Five years after presenting the world premiere of Dominique Morrisseau’s wonderful play, “Paradise Blue,” part of her Detroit trilogy, Williamstown Theatre Festival was set to revive it in the summer of 2020. Instead of a full production it has now turned up as part of their 2020 AUDIBLE season in March of 2021. In a remarkable new presentation the company has reassembled 95 percent of the original company - actors, director, designers and composers - to produce what could be called an original cast recording of this play.

        Set in Detroit in 1949 in a jazz club in the Black district of town called Blackbottom or Paradise Valley, five people live with the understanding that their world is on the brink of major change. Corn, a piano-playing older man played by Keith Randolph Smith, works the Paradise Club owned by trumpeter Blue played by Blair Underwood. P-Sam, their drummer, played by Andre Holland, wants to buy the club from Blue who is hoping to change his luck by moving on with his girl-friend Pumpkin, played by Kristolyn Lloyd. A stranger, the exotic and erotic Silver, moves into a room upstairs and makes her own moves on Blue, Corn and the club. Blue is haunted by the memory of his mother's death and his father's part in it and he cannot move through the music his instrument makes to the ultimate note. That's the plot of this play in a nutshell. 

Simone Missick as Silver; photo: pinterest.com

        The biggest change here is the leading lady. The stunningly beautiful De'Adre Aziza (see below photo ) as Silver-- a totally manipulative, highly combustible personality, has been replaced with Simone Missick, currently captivating audiences on the television series “All Rise” as Judge Lola Carmichael. Silver, so different from Lola, is a mysterious character with ulterior motives and a volatile past, seductive and repulsive at the same time. Missick’s voice is a delight; she brings Silver to life without the visual of her controlling character. Knowing who she is from her TV appearance helps a great deal in listening to this play, a treat I didn’t have at the beginning of my listening experience; it would have greatly enhanced the experience. But Missick’s acting is good enough to make her Silver live vibrantly for the duration of the performance.

         The object of her infection is Blue, the handsome, impressionable owner for the Paradise Club, a trumpet-man who holds in his talented hands the lives and futures of the other characters in this play. In Blair Underwood playwright Morisseau and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson have the perfect interpreter of Blue. Blue is everyone's best friend, their employer, mentor, ideal. He is deeply troubled and could easily sign a pact with the devil if he could achieve what dreams may come to him in the spotlight. Underwood makes each lightning change of mood understandable. He makes Blue's quixotic nature realistic and he makes his uneasy talent the stumbler. Blue, in his hands, is the man every creative artist hopes, yet fears, he will become. This very handsome man has his ugly side as he proves in spots throughout the play. He can be alluring and he can be repulsive. He can charm and he can horrify. For Blue, there is no devil with a document, there is only the document that cannot be signed. When the play ends and Blue is prepared for his destiny it is Blue alone standing in our unseen spotlight, and not the actor playing him.

        Keith Randolph Smith's Corn is the person most radically infected by Silver's presence. Corn is an older man, a widower for whom music and his friendship with Blue have been the two saving graces in life. Silver supercedes both realities and she creates in Corn a human lever, a tool to move mountains, to alter history. Smith is a man of powerful image. He is among the warmest of actors and his effect on others is remarkable to hear. Corn is the person others confide in at all times. Smith gives Corn that reality. As his influence grows he even effects changes in Blue. Smith constantly surprises us: his Corn's latent sensuality coming to the fore at times, his strength and reliable nature and personality dominating other people's decisions. This is a subtle and gentle performance: amazing.

        Andre Holland gives us so many aspects of P-Sam that it is hard to find words to describe this character. He is loving, hard, talented, thwarted, sexually charged, challenged and so much more. He walks a tightrope in many ways and he stays audibly erect most of the time.

De'Adre Aziza as Silver, Kristolyn Lloyd as Pumpkin, Blair Underwood as Blue (2015);

photo: T. Charles Erickson

(click to enlarge)

         Pumpkin, the girl in the club played by Kristolyn Lloyd, is the enigma. She openly loves Blue and she openly loves Paradise Valley and she is willing to sacrifice the latter for the former except she doesn't really want to and she ultimately proves that in a moment that suffers without being visible. She is malleable and, for the sake of the plot, is not musically talented; then suddenly she is. She is everything a jazz musician could want in a girlfriend. And then she's not. Lloyd is perfectly brilliant in the role. This actress gives this role everything the author could have imagined and more

        Repeating their original functions, Darron West as sound designer and co-composers Kenny Rampton and Bill Simms, Jr. provide the play with appropriate music and sound. West’s superb sound design is outright magic and he gives to the play its wonderment. The two composers have provided music to haunt our dreams.

        With the guidance of originating director Ruben Santiago-Hudson who has truly outshined himself with a play that is as seamless and as near divine as it ever gets, this play delivers with perfection. I truly recommend “Paradise Blue” to lovers of good theater. For my regular readers you know that I don’t often go this crazy over a play; for new readers just ask around. Or send me your reactions, please.

#### 03/24/2021 ####

Paradise Blue  will continue on Audible.com for a while and you can find it there. Pay the membership fee and listen to this and all of the Williamstown Theatre Festival season as it appears on this platform.