Playwright: Dominique Morisseau. At: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: 773-281-8463; TimelineTheatre.com; $38-$51. Runs through: July 23
Paradise Blue is a challenging play that TimeLine meets admirablyif not quite perfectlyunder veteran director Ron OJ Parson. The play seems part realism and part impressionism, with characters who are moods as much as real people. As Paradise Blue concerns late-1940s jazz musicians, and is dependent on atmosphere and music, the use of impressionism is not inappropriate.
However, characters painted with impressions are not quite complete, requiring the audience to fill in details between what people do and who they are. I don't mean to discredit the actors in any way. They are a phenomenal lot who bring honesty, passion and even delicacy to their portrayals, particularly Kristin E. Ellis as vulnerable, poetic Pumpkin and Al'Jaleel McGhee as Blue, the demanding central role. Blue is the play's greatest acting challenge, with an emotionally raw breakdown scene in Act II that McGhee handles admirably, but Blue also challenges the audience because the roots of his crisis aren't clearly explained, hinted-at only via impressions such as hallucinatory episodes for Blue.
Blue is a trumpet man who inherited the Paradise Blue Club from his father. It's a mainstay of Detroit's historic Black Bottom ghetto, scheduled for urban renewal ( reflecting actual Detroit history ). Will Blue sell to the city and hasten the 'hood's destruction? If he sells, will Blue escape the ghostsnotably his father'salmost literally haunting him? Blue also is mean, angry and controlling with his beautiful and uncomplaining woman, Pumpkin, and the sidemen who long have worked in his shadow. Although we don't fully understand what's churning Blue, one knows intuitively that it won't dissolve with Detroit's $10,000 in his pocket.
Blue is opposed by sidemen P-Sam and Corn ( equally satisfying Charles Andrew Gardner and Ronald L. Conner ) and significantly by Pumpkin. The explosive situation doesn't need a propellant but Morisseau provides one anyway, Silver ( confident and sultry Tyla Abercrumbie ), a so-called "Black Widow" with money, style, experience and not male-dependent. Silver's side story provides the means for the play's unexpected ending, which took me by surprise but made perfect sense.
Plays about musicians notoriously avoid having them play. How many actors also have advanced instrumental chops? Paradise Blue is graced with original incidental music by great Chicago jazz man Orbert Davis. It's mostly recorded, but McGhee does deliver several live riffs in a close-but-no-cigar effort. McGhee no doubt will improve during the run, but at opening the audience had to use its imagination as he rendered the play's ultimate musical moment, meant to be triumphant for Blue.Christine Pascual designed the sleek, handsome late-40s costumes, while scenic/lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge's new stage configuration transforms the TimeLine space with a richly-detailed two-level nightclub setting.
Paradise Blue offers passions and impressions aplenty.