'Paradise Blue': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
From left: Francois Battiste, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Keith Randolph Smith and Kristolyn Lloyd in 'Paradise Blue'
The language sings.
6/10/2018

Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs the NYC premiere of this new drama by acclaimed playwright Dominique Morisseau, author of 'Skeleton Crew' and 'Pipeline.'

There's a musicality to Dominique Morisseau's new drama, and it's not only because the action takes place in a jazz club. Set in 1949 Detroit, the play depicts the emotionally fraught confrontations among a group of people living and working in a black neighborhood on the cusp of being obliterated in the cause of getting rid of "blight." But the thin storyline takes a back seat to the rich language on display; like many a jazz composition, Paradise Blue doesn't cohere very well, but there are some dazzling solos.

Part of the playwright's Detroit-themed trilogy that also includes Skeleton Crew and Detroit '67, this effort, receiving its New York premiere courtesy of off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, is set in the rundown Paradise Club. The joint is staffed by its owner, Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson), and his hardworking, poetry-loving girlfriend Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), who cooks and cleans. Blue plays trumpet in the club alongside pianist Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) and drummer P-Sam (Francois Battiste), but the music has recently stopped after Blue got into a tiff with his bassist. To help make ends meet, Blue advertises a room for rent, an offer that is quickly taken up by a sultry widow (Simone Missick). "They call me Silver," she announces when asked her name, with the phrase taking on all sorts of meanings.

Blue takes an immediate dislike to his new tenant for some reason, treating her with undisguised hostility and suspicion. His misgivings aren't entirely misplaced, as Silver seems to have an agenda that goes beyond merely having a place to stay. She's also clearly in the market for a new man. The sweet-natured widower Corn becomes immediately smitten, despite P-Sam's warnings that the new arrival is a "spider woman." Corn's ensuing courtship and Silver's eventual seduction of him, at once comical and seriously sexy, forms the play's most compelling, fully realized aspect.

The evening's other plot strands prove thinner. The explosively angry Blue is plagued by inner demons that are never satisfyingly explored, with his alternatively loving and abusive treatment of Pumpkin seeming mostly designed for a forced, melodramatic ending that feels unconvincing. A subplot involving P-Sam's romantic designs on Pumpkin comes out of nowhere, and the urban gentrification theme — "We the blight he talkin' about," complains P-Sam about the mayor's plan — is similarly underdeveloped. The playwright also seems to have taken Chekhov's famous dictum about a loaded gun onstage a bit too seriously.

But the play feels very much alive anyway, thanks to Morisseau's prodigious gifts for language and creating small moments that register with significant emotional impact. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has garnered much acclaim for his staging of several August Wilson plays, works similar magic here, infusing the proceedings with vivid atmosphere. He also elicits mostly superb turns from the ensemble, which delivers the sort of lived-in performances that make you forget they're acting.

Missick is particularly mesmerizing as the femme fatale who injects a film noir aspect into the proceedings. Just the way her character walks, ever so slowly and with a full awareness of her devastating sensuality, is a master class in physical acting. Only Nicholson seems out of his depth, but it could well be because of Blue's opacity.

Neil Patel's set, ringed with vintage jazz and blues concert posters, and featuring two large electric signs ironically reading "Paradise" hung over the stage, perfectly evokes the setting, as do Clint Ramos' superb period costumes and Kenny Rampton's jazzy musical score. Paradise Blue may be an imperfect play, but it's receiving a nearly perfect production.  

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Francois Battiste, Kristolyn Lloyd, Simone Missick, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Keith Randolph Smith
Playwright: Dominique Morisseau
Director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Rui Rita
Music: Kenny Rampton
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Presented by Signature Theatre