Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting a stylish and atmospheric production of “Paradise Blue,” Dominique Morisseau’s striking if not wholly successful play. Set in Detroit in 1949, “Paradise Blue” is certainly able to summon up a bygone era very well, with strong work by director Awoye Timpo and featuring a flawless cast of five actors. This play is set in “Paradise Club” a jazz club owned by the character named Blue, portrayed memorably by Stephen Tyrone Williams. The playwright has definitely assigned evocative names to her quintet of characters, including such names as Pumpkin and Silver. The mood created by this production practically glows with the feel of jazz and the smoky atmosphere of an afterhours juke joint.
If style was all “Paradise Blue” was striving for, it could be considered a knockout. But Morisseau’s play is lacking, at times, with problems with character motivation and some plot points that simply don’t ring true. Plus, “Paradise Blue” is a lengthy play, and one can almost feel that the show is a bit overextended. Still, director Awoye Timpo has done everything possible to deck “Paradise Blue” out with the look and feel of its time and place, and, generally, the acting is so impressive that one can overlook the flaws. All in all, “Paradise Blue” at Long Wharf Theatre is a worthwhile evening of theatrical entertainment, even if its plot doesn’t quite satisfy.
One of the things that this production gets completely right is the casting and the performances of its excellent ensemble of actors. What’s even nicer is that the playwright has truly outfitted all the people in her play with unique characteristics, making every individual onstage truly interesting. As mentioned, the jazz club in the show (gorgeously designed by set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen, with great work by costume designer Lex Liang and lighting designer Oona Curley) is run by the character of Blue, a trumpet player and a tough character to contend with. Stephen Tyrone Williams has done a fine job in making Blue a mass of contradictions, playing up the ruthlessness of his part, but also offering some glimpses of appeal underneath.
Blue’s fellow musicians include Corn (the superb Leon Addison Brown) and Sam, portrayed by Freddie Fulton as a troubled, yet deeply sympathetic character. One wishes that “Paradise Blue” would feature scenes of the three musicians playing together (especially since the milieu of the play is a jazz club), but, mostly, one just sees Blue with his trumpet, performing alone. Unfortunately, the lack of moments of these characters making music as a trio renders the show a little frustrating, for the ambiance of the show cries out for the sounds of some serious jazz, which “Paradise Blue” is strangely lacking. Still, nonetheless, it must be said that these three actors all make their mark in the play.
In “Paradise Blue,” however, it is almost the female characters who make the biggest impression. At the very start, one sees the adorable Margaret Odette as Pumpkin, who prepares all the meals at the “Paradise Club,” which also offers room and board. Odette is terrific at establishing the nurturing nature of her character, and it is only later in the play that one sees that all is not right with Pumpkin, including the fact that she is romantically involved with the almost self-destructive and abusive Blue.
However, if there is one person onstage who stands out just a little bit from her costars, it is the glorious Carolyn Michelle Smith, as Silver, who is just as smooth and enticing as her name. Right from the moment she comes into the club, Silver takes over the stage and, in addition to a seductive walk and manner, the playwright has also given this character some crackling dialogue, which Smith certainly makes the most of. As it happens, Silver is as complex as everyone else in the play, and this actress practically sizzles from beginning to end.
“Paradise Blue,” if nothing else, definitely offers some extremely fascinating scenes and some truly interesting characters whom one can care about. The main fault of the play is that of overlength, and also, without revealing too much, an extremely abrupt and unmotivated conclusion that doesn’t ring true. Nonetheless, Long Wharf Theatre’s presentation of “Paradise Blue” is something to see, just to bask in the presence of these wonderful actors and to be drawn into the show’s atmosphere, which can practically be cut with a knife. If “Paradise Blue” ultimately still falls short, it has more to do with the imperfections in the play than in the good-looking production Long Wharf Theatre has conjured up.
“Paradise Blue” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through December 16, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: Carolyn Michelle Smith and Margaret Odette
Photo by T. Charles Erickson