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“Paradise Blue” On Audio Lacks Heat

Dominique Morisseau
Williamstown Theatre Festival

The Williamstown Theatre Festival is resuming its Audio presentation of its 2020 summer season with a production of “Paradise Blue.”

“Paradise Blue” is the only show on the seven-play series not scheduled for a production last summer.  It was offered a full production during the 2015 season, and remarkably four of the five actors in that effort again participate in this audio version.  It is directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who directed the WTF world premiere and the 2018 New York City production at Signature Theatre.

This loyalty indicates that producers and creatives believe in the play and in playwright Dominique Morrisseau.  In 2015 Morrisseau was a promising newcomer. Her play “Detroit 67,” established her a playwright of potential.  “Paradise Blue,” and the 2016 work “Skeleton Crew” formed what is called her Detroit trilogy and bought her to prominence.

Other plays and many awards followed.  One award was the 2018 MacArthur Fellowship, better known as the “Genius Grant.”  Morrisseau wrote the book for “Ain’t Too Proud,” the 2019 jukebox musical hit about famed musical group The Temptations.

Clearly, the past six years has been a time of achievement for the playwright.   It might explain why the original flaws in “Paradise Blue” still remain so painfully obvious.   It appears the playwright has not improved a script that showed so much promise.

And sadly, the audio version accentuates the problems that a dazzling in-person production covered up through superb performances.

It’s too bad, because the problems are really blemishes that prevent a good work from being a great play.  And I don’t use great carelessly. With some hard work, “Paradise Blue” has the potential to be outstanding.

It takes place in 1949, just as Detroit elected Albert Cobo, a racist real estate developer as mayor.  His eight years in office he segregated and marginalized the black population by using the concept of urban renewal.

Often that meant tearing down black communities and businesses and replacing them with high rise slums.  

One place Cobo would eliminate was the Black Bottom section of town, an area filled with honkytonks and jazz clubs that catered to the African-Americans of the Detroit community.

It is here that Blue, owner of the Paradise, plays trombone in his personal quartet.  That his bass player just quit foreshadows the trouble that is to come.

Blue is in negotiation to sell Paradise to the city. Because he rents rooms above the club it means many will lose their homes and well as their jobs.  Among them is Pumpkin, the gentle, quiet and loyal girlfriend of Blue.  The remainder of the band, which includes the pianist Corn and P-Sam, the drummer, are also at risk.

However, they trust Blue.

That is until the sexy and mysterious Silver arrives to rent a room by the month. Clearly, she has an agenda for Blue and the Paradise.  After she fails to seduce Blue, she succeeds with Corn and turns him against Blue.  As tensions rise, so do the emotions of every individual.

Throughout the play, Morrisseau creates an intense cauldron of lust, love and greed, which can only end with frustrations exploding.

The build-up includes many beautiful, comic, sensual and desperate moments which all come to fruition with an unpredictable, violent ending.

In a live performance, the fact that several characters need further development to enhance the tragedy of the situation is easily forgiven.  The same is true about some motivational vagueness and an ending that is accepted at the moment but appears contrived upon reflection.

With an audio production these lapses are accentuated.  Indeed, they are acerbated by slow deliveries that make Morrisseau’s poetic language seem artificial rather than eloquent.  And when the climax arrives with the sound of a gunshot, there is no explanation as to who is shot.

We can assume, but it is up to the listener to decide what happened.  Needless to say, it is not a satisfying ending.

Too, the live production was in two acts that ran two hours and twenty minutes.  The audio runs two uninterrupted hours, making several of the brooding scenes seem painfully bloated.

However, a cast that consists of Blair Underwood as Blue,  Andre Holland as P-Sam, and Keith Randolph Smith as Corn, along with newcomer to the show De’Andre Aziza makes the audio presentation fascinating.

But for poor Kristolyn Lloyd, who stole the live production with a charismatic performance, her important portrayal of Pumpkin is almost lost under director Santiago-Hudson’s monotone direction.

There is little doubt that playwright Morrisseau has an even brighter future ahead of her.  Nonetheless, I do hope she finds time to rework “Paradise Blue.”  It has too much potential to squander.

Like a character in the play says, ‘Brilliant and second class makes you insane.”

“Paradise Blue” is available by Audio at wtfestival.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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