Monday, July 27, 2015

All That Jazz: Paradise Blue and The Wild Party

Kristolyn Lloyd and Blair Underwood in Paradise Blue. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Paradise Blue, a new play by Dominique Morisseau at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is set in the African-American community of Blackbottom in Detroit in 1949, during the heyday of bop. Its protagonist, Blue (Blair Underwood), is a jazz trumpeter who owns a club, the Paradise, and headlines the combo that plays there. He’s struggling to attain the zenith of his creative powers while battling the ghosts of his childhood: he saw his father murder his mother. Morisseau intends Blue to embody the musicians in the bop movement, gifted and intellectually self-challenging, restless and haunted. It’s a great subject, but she’s also working with black archetypes that limit the play imaginatively. The quintet of hard-working actors in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production strive to bring a vibrancy to the play but they’re stuck playing caricatures.

Underwood, whose career has mostly been in television, is a potent stage presence; you have no trouble believing that he has the force of personality to tyrannize his fellow musicians, and when Underwood puts his trumpet to his lips he convinces you that he’s a jazzman. But his performance consists of one furious explosion after another; there aren’t any soft or understated moments, so you get tired of him by intermission. Blue lives with Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), who takes care of him and the other musicians and manages the hotel that supports the club, cleaning the rooms and feeding the guests – though since there appears to be only one person staying there, she mostly seems to devote herself to Blue. Pumpkin is sweet, loving and subservient (at least, until the end of the second act); she even memorizes elocution-class-style love poetry (a detail I wish someone had talked Morisseau out of). Her opposite number is Silver (De’Adre Aziza), a tough Louisiana woman who saunters into the Paradise one day, moves into one of the rooms, and sets about making herself part of the life of the place. Her aim is to buy the club, but Morisseau seems much less interested in her ambition than in her symbolic role as a kind of vengeful female spirit who may or may not have shot her husband and who arms Pumpkin – both literally and figuratively – against Blue’s abuses. The other two characters are the pianist, Corn (Keith Randolph Smith), a widower whom Silver brings back to sexual life, and P-Sam (Andre Holland), the drummer. Smith and Holland are vivid actors who are finally ill served by a script that turns them into quivering, sex-starved cartoons every time Silver walks across the room.

Poor Aziza has to sashay like Mae West and wear lingerie (designed by Clint Ramos) that makes her look like she’s working in a Wild West brothel. I’m not sure how Ramos worked out the women’s costumes: Pumpkin wears dresses that come down almost to her ankles, and despite the flamboyant underwear, so does Silver when she’s fully clothed. The women’s retro look is puzzling. Neil Patel’s set, which includes the bar and, stage right, Silver’s hotel room, is so minimalist that it’s not clear why WTF didn’t relegate the play to the smaller Nikos Stage.

The play has a political dimension. White Detroit finds Blackbottom an embarrassment and is trying to shut down the jazz clubs in order to bleed the life out of the neighborhood, and when P-Sam and Corn get wind of Blue’s plans to sell Paradise so that he can move on, they fear that the other clubs will shut down too. Paradise Blue would be a far more intriguing play if Morisseau had developed this idea and had spent some time really investigating bop, but she stays on the surface of both. The play is, finally, nothing but melodrama.

Sutton Foster (centre) and cast in The Wild Party. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party is a curio and a legitimate Jazz Age remnant. He wrote it as a novella in verse in 1928, but the style is hard-boiled and the material is lurid: the chronicle of a drunken party thrown by a vaudeville dancer named Queen and her live-in boy friend, Burrs the clown, that disintegrates into sexual revelry and, inevitably, jealousy and violence. The book was forgotten for years until Art Spiegelman furnished sinister black-and-white drawings for a new edition in 1994. Then, bizarrely, it spawned two musicals the same season, 1999-2000. One, with a score by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by LaChiusa and the director, George C. Wolfe, opened on Broadway; the other, entirely written by Andrew Lippa, was produced off Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club. I saw the LaChiusa version, which had a remarkable cast led by Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette as Burrs and Queenie, and I remember it vividly – but not with pleasure. The score was screechy and chaotic (there was a single good song, a duet, “People Like Us,” out of more than two dozen) while Wolfe directed the actors down to the ground; everyone seemed to be straitjacketed except for Eartha Kitt, the only performer who appeared to be having any fun. I’ve always wanted to see the Lippa adaptation, and now I’ve had my chance: Encores! included it in its summer season for a four-day run, directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sonya Tayeh.

It turns out to be a mixed bag. Lippa has written a strong score with elements of blues and R&B, but there’s too much of it (the show is almost through-sung): too many soulful, self-lacerating confessional ballads, too many duets soaked in anger and bitterness. March created a colorful cast of characters, all of whom made it into the LaChiusa version: not only Queenie’s friend and rival Kate, who arrives with a ladykiller named Black on her arm – the source of Burrs’ jealousy when he and Queenie wind up in bed – but also a prizefighter named Eddie and his diminutive sweetheart Mae, a lesbian on the prowl named Madelaine True, a predatory bisexual named Jackie, and the d’Armano brothers, Oscar and Phil, who are jazz musicians and lovers. (The first jealous outburst of the evening occurs when Jackie makes the moves on one of them.) LaChiusa gave all of these figures individual numbers, but in Lippa’s musical they’re all subsumed in the ensemble except for Kate and Black, who are crucial to the plot, Madelaine, who has one song, and Eddie and May, who get a duet. All the other musical numbers focus on one or some combination of the four main characters (though they’re often backed by the rest of the cast), and eventually you get weary of them. The other problem in this particular production was a surplus of hipster irony. Miriam Shor’s rendition of Madelaine’s solo, “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” was laced with it; it was the fallback stance for Steven Pasquale, who played Burrs; and there was a generally knowing tone to the proceedings.

Sutton Foster played Queenie, and God knows she could sing it; she can probably sing anything. And I admired her willingness to stretch, just as I did when she starred in Violet her last time out. But in that case she made the role hers, and she’s just not right for Queenie. (You need a young Barbara Stanwyck who can sing like hell.) Lippa wrote a new song for her, “A Happy Ending” – more irony – to replace the original finale, “How Did We Come to This?,” and it isn’t an improvement. Pasquale’s acting was dull but his singing was extraordinary, especially when he and Foster sang in counterpoint at the end of the first act (“Maybe I Like It This Way” and “What Is It About Her?”). That was the vocal highlight of the show. Both Brandon Victor Dixon (Black), whom I’d seen in the Encores! revival of the Harold Arlen-Truman Capote House of Flowers, and Joaquina Kulukango (Kate), with whom I was unfamiliar, are mesmerizing personalities with searing voices.

I was happy to be able to see this Wild Party, which had much to recommend it. But though the Saturday matinee audience cheered every number, I couldn’t summon the same enthusiasm for the show; it felt a little too worked-up, a little too synthetically hot and cool.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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