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A CurtainUp Review
Paradise Blue

"I'm choking here, I'm dying here." — Blue explaining his need to leave Detroit for Chicago, to Pumpkin who loves her life in Detroit.
Kristolyn Lloyd & J. Alphonse Nicholson
Dominique Morisseau's 2017 play Pipeline, could have been set in New York, where she now lives, or in any large city. But her first residency play at the Pershing Square Signature Theater Center returns to her roots in America's Motor City with Paradise Blue, the middle play of her Detroit trilogy. Like August Wilson's more epic Pittsburgh play cycle, Paradise Blue introduces us to a group of African-Americans in Detroit at different periods in time.

Chronologically, Paradise Blue is first, set as it is in 1947. Detroit67, which came first, played out against the 1967 racial tensions. Skeleton Crew fast forwarded to 2008 AND four auto workers faced with losing their jobs as factories moved overseas.

Paradise Blue is indeed a fine way to launch Morisseau's Signature residency, especially since Rubin Santiago-Hudson, who also helmed Pipeline, is again on board, as are two of the five original cast members— Kristolyn Lloyd and Keith Randolph Smith. The three new cast members have also been well chosen.

Santiago-Hudson has a good feel for the special nuances in both Morisseau's and August Wilson's work (He also helmed last season's first and very fine Broadway production of Wilson's Jitney ). His staging of Paradise Blue captures the kinship between Morisseau's own distinctive voice and August Wilson. He's fine tuned it and the flexible Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater has enabled him and his designers to make the audience, at either side of the playing area feel immersed in a circa late ''40s noirish club scene. There are posters of famous jazz men like Duke Ellington, Muddy waters and Erskine Caldwell all around, a bar and an area for the small band's instruments. It's all subtly supported by Rui Rita's lights, Clint Ramos's costumes, and Darron L. West's sound design.

The play is named for the Paradise Valley African-American neighborhood that's on the cusp of urban renewal, and the trumpet-player who inherited the Paradise club and rooming house. It's because Blue yearns to leave the memories haunting him, what happens to that piece of real estate also drives the plot, and reveals all its characters' ties to it. No wonder, a giant Neon sign emblazoned with the club name, over arches the atmospherically rich and versatile set also contains.

While four of the characters are Paradise Valley residents, there's also a mysterious outsider, the sexy Silver who's "from lots of places" — but, like Blanche DuBois, she is originally from Louisiana. To accommodate Morisseau's touch of Tennessee Williams, Designer Patel has created a slightly raised platform for the room Silver rents above the nightclub. And it's n that bedroom that some of the play's best scenes unfold.

Though not as well known as movie and TV star Blair Underwood, who played Blue at Williamstown, J. Alphone Nicholson brings the needed intensity to the trumpeter embittered by memories that make him unable to catch what his pianist Corn (the wonderful August Wilson play veteran Keith Randolph Smith) describes as that "Love Supreme" sound." It's the painful effect of those memories that make Blue view selling to the urban renewal people as a way to save himself rather than selling out. Of course, Corn and the other two people closest to him think differently. Being a seasoned musician undoubtedly helps Nicholson to convincingly handle the pretend trumpet playing that follows the beautiful recorded jazz riffs between scenes.

Blue's girl friend Pumpkin, the terrific Kristolyn Lloyd (Dear Evan Hansen fans will remember her as outlier student Alana Beck) loves life in Paradise Valley. Even though Blue's loving is at times abusive (shades as of his father), she uncomplainingly keep the place spic and span and provides sustenance as cook as well as lover.

As for Blue's band, it's down to a trio now that he has angrily fired the bass player for complaining about the low and slow pay. Corn and the percussionist P-Sam (Francoise Battiste, who has impressed me many times before, and does so again here) have remained even though the Paradise has lost stature to neighboring clubs. But while Corn remains the peacemaker, the more volatile P-Sam has his own plan for saving the club.

The mysterious Silver sees Detroit native Simone Missick zestfully sashaying into this feisty and enterprising combination standard issue temptress and Blanche Dubois. Silver has her own ghosts, notably a dead husband. Besides slinky gowns, her suitcases come packed with a gun and a stash of cash that could make her ideas for the future of the club a reality.

The highlights of the scenes in Silver's bedroom involve her becoming Corn's lover and Pumpkin's mentor. The latter includes a hilarious lesson in how to handle a gun for Lloyd (and yes, this confirms Chekhov's theory about the appearance of a gun).

Excellent as all the actors are, it's Lloyd's Pumpkin and Smith's Corn who are the most emotionally engaging characters. And mood enhancing as all those recorded bluesy riffs are, it's Lloyd's stunning rendition of the original song Bill Simms Jr. wrote for her that you'll wish was available as a recording to take home and listen to again.

The musician desperate to hit that perfect note and the sexy black angel character sashaying around the edges and inevitably to center stage may be just a tad clichéd, but Mr. Santiago-Hudson and this ensemble make them very classy classy clichés.

Here's hoping that Ms. Morisseau will revisit her trilogy. That would perhaps mean adding a chapter to the excellent Skeleton Crew, for a story about Detroit's economic comeback which, however, does not include factories and its poorer citizens.

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Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cast: Francois Battiste(P-Sam), Kristolyn Lloyd(Pumpkin), J. Alphonse Nicholson(Blue), Keith R. Randolph (Corn), Simone Missick (Silver)
Scenic Designer: Neil Patel
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Rui Rita
Sound Designer: Darron West
Sound Designer: Thomas Schall
Fight Director: Kenny Rampton
Music Director and Composer for original Pumpkin Son: Bill Sims, Jr.
Hair and Wig Designer:Charles G. LaPonte
Stage manager: Laura Wilson
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd
From 4/24/18; opening 5/14/18; closing 6/18/18--extended before opening to 6/10/18 which means regular prices are in effect.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/12/18 press preview

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