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BWW Review: PARADISE BLUE strike Gold at Geffen Playhouse

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Dominique Morisseau's examination of music, madness and community plays through December 12

BWW Review: PARADISE BLUE strike Gold at Geffen Playhouse

PARADISE BLUE, a play that contains music, begins with the sound of a sublime note issued by a trumpet and concludes, a couple of riveting hours later with an equally beautiful strain...followed by a far more discordant sound. Playwright Dominque Morisseau, whose work includes her three-play Detroit trilogy and the book to the Temptations musical AIN'T TOO PROUD TO BEG, clearly has sharps and flats coursing through her veins. Keen psychological insight, too. The production of PARADISE BLUE directed by Stori Ayers at The Geffen Playhouse, is as compelling as it is ultimately shocking. We think we are witnessing one story when, with its final double whammy of a climax, the tale pivots and we see that the playwright has a different set of issues on her mind.

Looking back, you can see that Morisseau leaves plenty of tells, and it helps that every member of Ayers's ensemble is so damned deft that his or her character could easily have been the play's beating heart. As much as this is a play that depicts the interplay of men -- specifically bandmates in a Black Bottom jazz quartet who both are and are not friends -- the women of PARADISE BLUE are forces to be reckoned with as well. Not that you'll be able to do otherwise, but keep your eyes on Tyla Abercrumbie as a business-minded femme fatale who knows how to handle the boys, and on Shayna Small as Pumpkin, the cook, cleaner and rock who keeps the titular club - and its mercurial owner - together.

Located in the heart of the jazz-loving Paradise Valley stretch of Detroit, the Paradise is owned and run by Blue (played by Wendell B. Franklin), a brooding trumpeter who likes things done his way. The year is 1949, and the land that the Paradise occupies is in demand, enough that the city Is making overtures to buy it. Entrenched as he is, Blue may be willing to do business.

Until then, he has music to supply. We start the play the day after Blue and his bassist, Joe, have fallen out over Joe's request to be paid upfront instead of after the gigs. Not happening, says Blue, meaning Joe is gone and the quartet is temporarily a trio. Until a replacement is found, Blue plans to largely go solo and use Pumpkin (who is not a singer) as a vocalist. Ever-agreeable piano man, Corn, (John Earl Jelks), still has a job, but percussionist P-Sam (Alani iLongwe) is out of the group until a new bassist is found, although Blue will continue to let him live rent-free in the Paradise's rooms. Also looking for a place to rest her head is the mysterious Silver (Abercrumbie), a slinky black widow spider of a woman who arrives from Louisiana trailing sex and danger.

Her arrival sets this already incendiary group into collision, and the interplay between these characters is both slickly rendered and fun to watch. Demure, poetry-loving Pumpkin - Blue's lover as well as his all-purpose help - will pick up something from the been there and seen-it-all Silver. Corn and P-Sam both potentially want a taste of what Silver is offering. The aging piano man may be putty in her dangerous hands, but we are never to undervalue the resources of a man who can stroke the keys and get through life without making waves. In taking on a character largely without edge, Jelks, a stalwart of so many of August Wilson's plays, is playing somewhat against type here. But his affable, peace-keeping Corn is a tonic nonetheless. "I get you, Blue," Corn tells his boss early in the play, adding ruefully, "I may be the only one who do get you." Well, yes and no.

PARADISE BLUE finds a lot of characters ruminating on what they or other people want vs what they need. Put that question to Pumpkin and she would insist that what folks in these Black Bottom need most -- herself included - is exactly what they already have: the Paradise Club, a "sanctuary." Blue doesn't agree. Having taken over the club from his abusive father, Blue views the Paradise to be a place of torment, of reminders and dark memories. He's hoping to pack it up and start anew in Chicago and take Pumpkin with him. Pumpkin has no interest in leaving, but she's so tied up with Blue, so convinced that she can save him, that the decision may be out of her hands.

As I watched this tale of African American jazz men negotiating their way through a post-World War II America, I couldn't help harkening back to my encounter with August Wilson's SEVEN GUITARS a few short weeks ago at A Noise Within. Wilson's play was written more than two decades earlier and Morisseau must be acquainted with it. Granted, Morisseau's rendering of Detroit in no way mirrors the Hill District of Wilson's Pittsburgh, but it is telling that guitarist Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton of GUITARS and Blue both want out, and figure Chicago will offer some success or measure of salvation. There are other similarities. The two plays could make for an interesting repertory pairing.

As Blue, Franklin's toughness and tortured psyche give us some indication why people fall in line to do his bidding, even though the character is damaged goods. Demons and a troubled past may provide some explanations. Silver, for one, is having none of it.

Compelling as Corn, P-Sam and Blue most certainly are, it's the women of PARADISE BLUE who are the play's engines. The more we learn about Silver, who she is and what she wants, the more intriguing she becomes. Abercrumbie possesses the moves, the gaze and the vocal cadence of a man-eater who also has a head for business. She's a breathtaking vamp, but she also nails the strain of sadness that gives Silver an extra more complicated dimension.

Small's Pumpkin, meanwhile, seems to evolve and deepen before our very eyes. The dowdy miss who kept fumbling her book of poetry while sweeping up trash in the play's opening scene proves ripe for discovery and for developing a backbone. We believe Corn's initial protestations that Pumpkin has no musical talent and are suitably taken aback when this proves not to be the case. "That's the music in you," Corn tells Pumpkin after she has recited an original composition. "You found it."

The visuals of this performance are equally top drawer. Small and Abercrumbie both get assists from costume designer Wendell C. Carmichael whose threads give provide ladies some serious oomph. Alan C. Edwards' lighting packs a punch as well, particularly during Blue's white hot music interludes. The teal green hues of scenic designer Edward E. Haynes Jr.'s Paradise club, with its silhouette of palm trees, evokes a swimming pool or a beach far away from Black Bottom Detroit. We never see the Paradise filled with people, but it's easy to imagine the place positively cooking.

As noted previously, the ending of PARADISE BLUE took me by surprise, but maybe it shouldn't have. It's easy enough to overlook people or situations and dismiss them as not being threatening. When the music is in you, as this marvelous play clearly demonstrates, remarkable things are bound to happen.

PARADISE BLUE plays through December 12 at The Geffen Playhouse, 10886, Le Conte Ave., Westwood. For tickets, click here.

Photo of John Earl Jelks and Shayna Small by Jeff Lorch.


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