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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 22, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `Blue’
In its decision to produce a contemporary play that
recently enjoyed a New York run, the Paper Mill could not have done
better than it has with the excellent "Blue" by Charles Randolph-Wright.
It arrives as a breath of fresh air in a season that seems top-heavy
with three big, been-there-done-that shows: "Annie," "Grease,"
The great news is that Paper Mill’s "Blue" makes a better
impression on this critic than the Roundabout Theater production.
And a lot of the credit for this goes to Tony Award-winner Leslie
Uggams, who is simply terrific, despite that fact that she doesn’t
get to sing. And is there singing! Nona Hendryx’s R&B songs weave
seductively and evocatively throughout "Blue."
Although Wright’s play is not technically a musical, it is buoyed
by Hendryx’s lush, jazzy sounds (with some lyrics contributed by Wright).
The composer, who began her career with Labelle (culminating with
their hit record "Lady Marmalade"), provides songs that frame
the episodic play with honest and persuasive emotion.
If the songs are terrific (and well sung by a very handsome Michael
McElroy, as the story’s ghostly infiltrator), the play, about a prominent
and successful black family in South Carolina, is even better. Especially
since it revolves around an oddball, one-of-a-kind central character,
played with a grandiose flair by Uggams. The plot is designed to keep
you amused and attentive even as it takes some dangerous curves around
artificiality and bittersweet sentimentality.
The play’s most inventive conceit is to have the songs and its sole
singer enjoy such an important role that impacts on the otherwise
To the author’s credit, "Blue" mostly avoids issues of race
and social alienation and centers on Wright’s own privileged dysfunctional
(is there any other kind?) family, and most specifically coping with
his mother, a matriarch characterized as an unbridled spirit of fabricated
The name of the story’s factual York, South Carolina, setting (the
actual Wright Funeral Home is still a fixture there) has been curiously
changed to Kent. But it is a moot point; the story being told never
compromises the playwright’s device of mixing fiction with truth.
This is an often courageous play, in fact, that sometimes seems like
a hybrid of situation comedy and realistic drama, as outrageously
funny to suit the one, yet compelling enough for the other.
Uggams plays Peggy Clark, the dominating, relentlessly
up-scaling mother and wife. Sashaying around in costumer Debra Bauer’s
striking print-dominated fashions and furs; a diva in her own mind,
and dominating designer James Leonard Joy’s abstractly evoked setting,
Peggy takes her role as the wife of a hugely successful undertaker
very seriously. She has resolved to make Samuel Clark III (Chris Butler),
her kowtowing 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 possessed
and empowered by the songs of Blue Williams, whose records she plays
incessantly and intrusively.
Peggy has pinned her hopes and dreams on making her youngest son Reuben
(Jovun Fox, as a youth; Jacques C. Smith, as an adult) a professional
trumpet player. She is also busy guiding and grooming the oldest,
Samuel Jr. (Willie C. Carpenter) for marriage to a girl of equal 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 unrestrained passion for purchasing
fur coats (until it becomes politically incorrect), and her disinterest
in cooking, (she has exotic dinners delivered, a most incredible feat,
if you know the area), as simply outlandish and eccentric. Their response,
however, is mainly tolerant, loving and conciliatory. More down-to-earth
is their outspoken, "nobody’s fool" grandma, warmly played
by Amentha Dymally.
Rather than going for the effects of psychological damage done to
children by their parents, arrives at plot twists that strain credulity.
When her oldest son brings home LaTonya (a wonderfully exuberant and
funny Felicia Wilson), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Peggy
gives her the cold shoulder until she discovers that she shares her
passion for Blue. Their bonding is undone when LaTonya runs off with
Blue and Peggy feels betrayed.
Fifteen years later, when the estranged Reuben, now a successful record
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 path
to forgiveness. It’s not an unhealthy idea. Wright is a good writer
who has chosen, with only a few lapses, to exorcise his bete noir
with tenderness and understanding.
— Simon Saltzman
$30 to $62. Runs to February 8.
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