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These reviews by Simon Saltzman were prepared for the July 18,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Blue’
Nona Hendryx’s R&B songs weave seductively and
throughout Charles Randolph-Wright’s memory play, "Blue."
Although Wright’s play is not technically a musical, it is buoyed
by the composer’s lush melodic contributions (with some lyrics
by Wright). Hendryx, who began her career with the group Labelle
with their No. 1 record, "Lady Marmalade"), provides songs
that frame the episodic play with honest and persuasive emotions that
are more superficially exercised in the text.
If the songs are terrific (and well sung by a very handsome Michael
McElroy, as a ghostly infiltrator), the play, about a prominent and
successful black family in South Carolina, is not hard to like given
its oddball one of a kind central character. Despite many good
and a plot to keep you amused and attentive, it drives an uneasy path
between patent artificiality and bittersweet sentimentality. While
it is a clever conceit to have music play such an important role,
especially as it impacts on the plot, the song bridges also tend to
bring dramatic scenes to a halt.
To the author’s credit, the play mostly avoids the issues of race
and social alienation. Instead it centers on Wright’s own privileged,
dysfunctional (is there any other kind?) family, and most specifically
on his mother, a matriarch characterized as an unbridled spirit of
fabricated superiority. The factual York, South Carolina, setting
(the actual Wright Funeral Home is still a fixture there), however,
has been curiously changed to Kent. For whatever reasons the author
has for changing the town’s name, it is a moot point in the context
of the almost all true (according to the author himself) story he
is telling, with perhaps a little more contrivance and courage. The
play, in fact, often feels like a hybrid of sitcom comedy and
drama, neither outrageously funny enough for the one, nor compelling
enough for the other.
Phylicia Rashad plays Peggy Clark, the domineering, relentlessly
mother and wife. Sashaying around her domain (more abstractly than
accurately conceived by designer James Leonard Joy), Peggy takes her
role as the wife of a hugely successful undertaker very seriously.
She has resolved to make Samuel Clark III (Howard W. Overshown), her
cow-towing husband, and their two sons, reflections of her own ideals
and exemplars of the cultural pursuits she has immersed herself in
since giving up her modeling career up north. At home, she is
and empowered by the songs of Blue Williams, whose records she plays
Peggy has pinned her hopes and dreams on making her youngest son,
Reuben (Chad Tucker, as a youth, and Reuben Clark, as an adult), a
professional trumpet player. She is also busy guiding and grooming
the oldest, Samuel Jr. (Randall Shepperd), for marriage to a girl
of good social standing and for a future career alongside dad. You
would think that the family would see Peggy’s continuous obsessing
over Blue, the constraints she puts on everyone’s conduct, her
passion for purchasing fur coats (until it becomes politically
and her lack of interest in cooking (she has exotic dinners delivered
to the house, a most incredible feat, if you know the Carolinas),
as simply outlandish and eccentric. Their response, however, is mainly
tolerant, loving, and conciliatory. More mercifully down to earth
is their outspoken, nobody’s-fool grandma, warmly played by Jewell
The plot, rather than going for the effects of psychological damage
done to children by their parents, goes for plot twists that test
credibility. When her oldest son brings home LaTonya (a wonderfully
exuberant and funny Messeret Stroman), a girl from the wrong side
of the tracks, Peggy gives her the cold shoulder until she discovers
that LaTonya shares her passion for Blue. Their bonding is undone
when LaTonya runs off with Blue and Peggy is betrayed.
Fifteen years later, when the estranged Reuben, now a successful
producer, returns home for a visit, family secrets are unearthed with
remarkable swiftness. Under Sheldon Epp’s sheltering direction, the
deeply affected victims of a misguided mother ultimately appear less
psychologically crippled than they are committed to forging a way
to forgiveness. Not an unhealthy idea. Wright is a good writer with
promise, who has chosen, not without a few lapses, to exorcise his
bete noir with tenderness and understanding. Three stars. You won’t
— Simon Saltzman
New York, 212-777-4900. $55.
There is an incomprehensible mismatch behind the great
success of the rock musical "Rent," and the sudden tragic
death of its composer Jonathan Larson, who, at the age of 35 succumbed
to an aortic aneurysm just prior to the musical’s first preview.
another poignant notch to Larson’s short life is "tick,
the tender, touching, and slightly self-indulgent biographical musical
he wrote before "Rent." For those who have seen and loved
"Rent," "tick, tick, BOOM" is a must. For those who
haven’t, "tick, tick, BOOM" stands securely on its own merits.
This less bombastic and more personal musical ardently reflects on
the composer’s own anxieties and frustrations on turning 30 and still
unable to get the big break he feels he deserves as a composer for
musical theater. In "tick, tick…BOOM," Jonathan is hard
at work on "Superbia" (a real project that Larson was in fact
working on), an unwieldy musical that is about to get its first
Perhaps without any knowledge of Larson’s short life and death, we
might not feel the melancholy that infiltrates even the show’s
moments. But whether or not you are a member of the Larson fan club,
there is little doubt that the irrepressibly appealing music and witty
lyrics will impress you.
David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Proof,"
has done a terrific job of putting together elements from three
that Larson wrote and originally performed as a solo piece. And Auburn
has done a masterful job of fitting the solo piece to the talents
of three fine performers. Raul Esparza, who played Riff-Raff in
Rocky Horror Show," has the task of making endearing the anxious,
overwrought, impatient-for-recognition Jonathan.
As the show’s narrative driver, Esparza turns kvetching into a lovable
trait. His funny and touching high-strung portrayal reflects both
Jonathan’s irrepressible enthusiasm as much as it does his conflicted
insecurities, acutely aware as he is of the "tick tick" of
the clock followed by the "BOOM" of a failure.
Amy Spanger (recently seen as Bianca/Lois in the revival "Kiss
Me Kate") is dynamite as Jonathan’s girl friend, who tries in
vain to lure Jonathan away from a career in the city. Jerry Dixon,
who plays Jonathan’s roommate and friend since childhood, and who
gives up an acting career for the security of a job in marketing,
also makes a sizable musical and dramatic contribution. All three
have powerhouse voices that move easily from the sweeter ballads to
the comic patter tunes, to the full-throttle rock mode of "Louder
What remains as the show’s raison d’etre is Larson’s score and his
grandiose and largely successful scheme to fuse traditional theater
music with the rebellious bombast of the rock idiom. You may say that
this is not new (think "Jesus Christ, Superstar" all the way
to "Jekyll and Hyde"). But Larson’s muse (he makes no bones
about Stephen Sondheim being his musical idol) undoubtedly allows
him to empower classical styles with a fresh melodic line and a
pop-rock beat that is truly original. A four-man band is perched above
designer Anna Louizos’ modest, but effective, setting. Director Scott
Schwartz uses a firm but gentle touch to bring the best out of a life
that immodestly persuades us that the best was yet to come. Three
stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
between Washington and West Streets, 212-239-6200. $20 to $50.
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