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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,"

and "Camelot".

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

narrative-driven plot.

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

superiority.

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

Blue, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-379-3636.

$30 to $62. Runs to February 8.


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