The Review: Signature Theatre’s Paradise Blue
It’s 1949, and the blues float through the Detroit air inside the Signature Theatre on a strong trumpet note. We are surrounded on all sides by legends, posters heraldng the coming of such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Count Basie and Cab Calloway, as the sound of jazz draws us into the Paradise Bar. The sign hanging over the room lights up, spelling it out as clear as can be, that we are now in Paradise, but what those lights don’t tell us is that in the darkness hides demons that inhabit this club. Paradise is running out of air as the small Black community formerly known as Blackbottom, on the downtown strip now called Paradise Valley has a future that is as troubling as Blue’s mind. He’s the trumpet-playing man at the center of Dominique Morisseau’s dynamic new play, Paradise Blue, the last of the playwright’s three-play cycle, “The Detroit Project” and as inhabited magnificently by J. Alphonse Nicholson (NFT’s Freight), he blows a sad and haunted tune seeped in his Daddy’s madness just before the shot shatters the hypnotic song and shoves us hard.
Blue has inherited the club from his jazz great but deceased father, a man who’s very breath and sound linger in the dusty air of Paradise like stale smoke from the night before. Blue can’t seem to escape the man, no matter how hard he tries to play through the madness and tragedy, and no matter how much the loving Pumpkin, portrayed with a calm grace and care by the lovely and solid Kristolyn Lloyd (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen). She’s his protector, or at least she tries to save him from the sounds of a history dipped in sorrow and violence. Lloyd fills the woman with a saintly human edge that warms the heart, as she cares for all those other souls who live up above the club in rooms rented out by the week. One is in the fatherly form of Corn, a piano player with a warm friendly spot for Pumpkin and a great sad love for his dearly departed wife. Played with care by the wonderful Keith Randolph Smith (Broadway’s American Psycho), we hold onto his kindness as a shield, hoping he will be the one that can help, as it’s clear that Blue listens to him more than almost anyone else.
That is especially true in regards to the hot headed P-Sam, played with fire and passion by Francois Battiste (Public’s Head of Passes). Blue bristles at almost everything that comes out of his mouth, but P-Sam’s role is the least fundamental both in the club, and in the pages of this play. He counters every move of Corn, debating the reality of the world and the dark cloud hanging over the neighborhood he loves. He does get it right about the stunning new arrival, Silver, played gorgeously by Simone Missick (Marvel’s “Luke Cage“), when he states, “She’s go some kind of walk on her‘. She’s trouble, they all think, but just the kind of trouble this play needs, shaking up every soul in that room this way and that, breathing life into the men, both good and bad, and arming the loyal Pumpkin with some hard cold Blue facts of life.
As directed by the powerful Rubin Santiago-Hudson (MTC’s Jitney), fingers tap on the bar like keys on a piano as the world outside builds some aggressive steam against this little slice of jazz heaven. Most everyone sees it coming, and those that do want to do something to save it, and hopefully themselves in the process. The club smells like whisky on your shoes and as designed by Neil Patel (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim), with perfect costumes by Clint Ramos (Broadway’s Once on This Island), exacting hair and wigs by Charles G. LaPointe (Hamilton), moody lighting by Rui Rita (Broadway’s Present Laughter), and magical sound by Darron L. West, you want to pull up and chair and kick back for a spell and listen to some good jazz by pros who live and breath that stuff. When the blues start to float through the room, with original Music by Kenny Rampton with as assist from music director, Bill Sims, Jr. (Public’s Lackawanna Blues) who also is credited with the original music for “Pumpkin’s Song”, we can’t help but find the love and the dreaming, just like Pumpkin and her poetry. Those moments of musical and poetic recital, just like this play, are bathed in mercy and madness, with Blue playing for his soul in hopes of finding the love supreme that might save him from his past and the possible future. The world is coming, looking to destroy and kick out this world of jazz and the blues, and although this music won’t be able to stop this attack, no matter how much it is touched by God, this play will carry us through, and keep this place and moment alive for future theatre goers.