Music wafts through the empty bar long enough to be called an overture. Though it’s uncomfortably extended, to the production’s credit, integration of both familiar and original jazz is otherwise integral, evocative and seamless. (Kenny Rampton- original music; Bill Sims Jr. – Music Director; Darron L. West-Sound Design)
Francois Battiste, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Keith Randolph Smith , Kristolyn Lloyd
It’s 1949. Paradise is a struggling jazz joint in Black Bottom, Detroit owned by an anxious trumpeter called Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson). His Black Bottom Quartet features pianist Cornelius, aka Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) – a lonely, paternal, teddy bear of a man who understands Blue’s visceral quest for “love supreme”- the perfect, accomplished note justifying everything, yet remains somewhat naïve. And percussionist P-Sam (Francois Battiste) – a savvy hipster with a heart and ambitions. Bassist Joe just quit, necessitating the search for a replacement.
Simone Missick and Kristolyn Lloyd
Two women of polar opposite natures round out the cast. Blue’s “go along gal” Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), has made peace with living out of wedlock for the time being. Very much a young lady, she learns and recites poetry to better herself, occasionally sharing it with the musicians. (Lloyd is marvelous at haltingly sharing pieces the character might not understand.) Pumpkin also good-naturedly cooks and cleans for the establishment. Like Corn, she considers the group her family, the club her home.
“Silver” (Simone Missick), a black widow with an undulating walk straight out of Sam Spade and a red herring gun in her suitcase, rents a room upstairs with ulterior motives. She looms like a warning upstage in Neil Patel’s well drawn, purposefully single Set. Love the overhead signage. Also visually contributing are Lighting Designer Rui Rita who conjures art-like mood and ever excellent Costume Designer Clint Ramos. (Take a gander at the shoes!)
Keith Randolph Smith and Simone Missick
Two things further rock the unsteady boat. First, newly minted Mayor Albert Cobo, an historically real politician determined to tackle urban blight, is buying up black-owned property in order to gentrify. Paradise is prime real estate. Second, Blue, secretly tormented by memories/ghosts of his tragically killed mother and psychotic jazzman father, imagines he can run from them.
Dominique Morriseau’s play reflects on black identity in the context of both relationships and social circumstances. Much like August Wilson’s terrific Jitney (its Broadway debut also directed by Santiago-Hudson), you won’t feel the message while curtain’s up, just drama. Initially concealed aspects of character come to the fore when provoked. Resonant language lands authentically. Only the climax seems, if intriguing, unlikely.
Kristolyn Lloyd and J. Alphonse Nicholson
The splendid company doesn’t have a weak link. Kristolyn Lloyd deftly lets us observe every step of Pumpkin’s gradual evolution. Simone Missick’s Silver sizzles, seethes, and plots while the actress embodies a flesh and blood woman not caricature. An auspicious New York debut.
J. Alphonse Nicholson (Blue) is palpably taut, eventually breaking down with credibility. Francois Battiste (P-Sam) acts as if to an internal jazz score. We see the rhythm in his movement. Unrequited longing is sympathetic. Keith Randolph Smith (also in Jitney) is flat out marvelous. His multi-faceted Corn emerges whole and considered.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson not only employs his space with appealing variety and storytelling ability, he pays noteworthy attention to character detail, tailoring every bit of stage business, reaction time, and gaze.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: J. Alphonse Nicholson and Kristolyn Lloyd
Paradise Blue by Dominique Morriseau
Third in a Trilogy including Skeleton Crew and Detroit ‘67
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 10, 2018