Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
De'Adre Aziza, Kristolyn Lloyd, Blair Underwood; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"The pain is the sweetest part."
Keith Randolph Smith; photo: T. Charles Erickson
This could be a one-word review. This cannot be a one-word review. Still, I could sum up everything in a single sentence, but is that being fair to all the folks involved? And would it be fair to me, wanting as I do to write reams about "Paradise Blue" by Dominique Morisseau, a world premiere production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival? I'll write as much as time and space allow and hope you understand my quandary.
This new play is perhaps the finest new play of the year, certainly of the summer thus far, and probably just the best of the season. It is being given a superb production with a cast that could not be improved upon in a physical presentation that outstrips everything before it and all that's yet to come. The word perfection comes to mind and stays right out there visible constantly. I am stretching credibility here, but there are no quibbles, no doubts, no moments that stretch feasibility. There is a play about a real place in a real time with people who could easily be real caught in a real situation that takes on its own theatrical plausibility and miraculous denouement. I was surprised by the ending. I was surprised by the structure. I was enthralled by the experience from top to bottom.
I even stood up at the end to applaud the company. Anyone who has read me this season or last knows I abhor the easy standing ovation. It needs to be reserved for something outstanding. This one is. This one really is deserving.
Set in Detroit in 1949 in a jazz club in the black district of town, 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, played by De'Adre Aziza, moves into a room next door 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.
De'Adre Aziza plays a type of woman we see often in fiction, a totally manipulative, highly combustible personality. It is possible to follow her trail through life by spotting the burn pattern on the floor or the walls of buildings she passes. She provides evidence of her progress in the human destruction she leaves behind. When she walks people notice her; when she stands in one place people cannot take their eyes off her. Aziza manages to take this woman one stage beyond reality into the mythic. Her voice is the equivalent of melody and when she speaks it is as though an orchestra has accompanied her. Her character's name, Silver, is the perfect descriptor for she is a molten, metallic monster of magic. She visibly alters everyone she meets.
Keith Randolph Smith's Corn is the most radically infected by Silver's presence. Corn is a widower for whom music and his friendship with Blue have been the two saving graces in life. Silver supercedes them both and she creates in him a human lever, a tool to move mountains, to alter history. Smith is a man of powerful image. He is among the warmest actors on any stage and his effect on others is remarkable to watch. Corn is the person others confide in at all times. Smith gives Corn that possibility. As his influence grows he even effects changes in Blue. Smith constantly surprises us: 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 that is 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 erect most of the time.
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. 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. She is stunningly perfect. She is absolutely stunning. This actress gives this role everything the author could have imagined and more.
Smith with Kristolyn Lloyd; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Blair Underwood; photo: T. Charles Erickson
In Blair Underwood playwright Morisseau and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson have the perfect interpretor of trumpet-man 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 and 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 on the stage and not the actor playing him; Underwood has left the theater and his character remains standing where the actor once stood. This is what gets the standing ovation, the art of complete submersion of an actor into a role.
The design team has created the most amazingly perfect physical realization of this play and its environs. Neil Patel's set is exactly right. Clint Ramos's costumes are so good they are transformative. Rui Rita's lighting is the best I have ever seen, including the audience downlights which bring us into the club as the audience we never see. His focus of light on Blue's trumpet at moments when the trumpet is the play makes everything else seem unreal and otherworldly. Darron L. West's superb sound design is outright magic and he gives to the play its wonderment. Co-composers Kenny Rampton and Bill Sims, Jr., have provided music to haunt our dreams. Thomas Schall, as the fight director, provides unanticipated thrills.
Santiago-Hudson has truly outshined himself and every other director this season with a play that on stage is as seamless and as near divine as it ever gets. The word "perfection" is rarely typed by my fingers, but it is that word that started me on this review and it is the word that will conclude it. If you see one play this year you must shoot for perfection. You must see this play.
Paradise Blue plays through August 2 on the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance on the Williams College campus at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.