Blue 

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Review by Les Gutman

Tillie Clark (Jewell Robinson) can't believe her son is married to that woman. Neither can the woman's sons. Peggy Clark (Phylicia Rashad) is a duck out of water: she's miserable, and seems to relish spreading her infelicity around. On a visit to Chicago in the 1960's, Samuel Clark, Jr. (Randall Shepperd) swept Peggy off the Ebony Fashion Fair runway, brought her home to Kent, S. C., and married her. It's the late seventies now and her antics seem to roll off his back. 

Only two things assuage Peggy: Samuel's money -- he runs the family's successful funeral home and never chafes at her credit card bills -- and the music of Blue Williams (Michael McElroy), to which she listens incessantly. She's a proud snob, a lousy homemaker and we might as well go ahead and etch her name into the record books at the Motherhood Hall of Shame. Growing up, her older son, Sam (Howard W. Overshown), is a rebellious teen she's always putting down, while her younger son, Reuben (Chad Tucker), is a sensitive Mama's Boy she dotes over. Peggy is trying to mold Reuben into a musician like her idol. Sam accidentally gets on his mother's good side at one point, when he starts dating LaTonya Dinkins (Messeret Stroman), a hick chick Peggy can barely look at until she discovers the girl shares her obsession with Blue. Peggy takes LaTonya under her wing, but it won't last long.

Blue opens as a memory play centering on Reuben as a grown man (Hill Harper), roughly today. In the first act, Harper shadows his younger colleague, sometimes reciting lines in unison with him, sometimes engaging in conversation with him (but never with anyone else). In the second act, set fifteen years after the first, Harper takes over the role, with Tucker sometimes looming as the younger self. In the intervening time, we discover that Sam has traded in his oversized Afro for a Brooks Brothers look -- he's running the family business in his father's footsteps -- while Reuben, having never succeeded as a musician, is living in Seattle, sporting dreadlocks and trying to get something going as a music producer. He returns home, angry, and discovers something about himself much of the audience probably had guessed already.

Randolph-Wright's framing device doesn't add much to this play, and truth be told, the show would probably be better off without it. It's shortcomings are compounded by the way in which Blue's character is handled. Throughout the show, he appears, onstage or above it, singing (music by Nona Hendryx) to Peggy but not actually there. So we end up with dueling "visions". This takes nothing away from McElroy's performance -- he is an engaging singer who does a fine job of evoking the sort of soft jazz/"quiet storm" sensibility into which Blue's music has evolved.

Stripped of these elements, Blue is a finely-written, well-directed and beautifully performed piece. Randolph-Wright has a nicely honed ear for these characters' dialogue, rendering it funny, poignant, sad and honest. The actors, many of whom are reprising their roles from the original production of Blue at DC's Arena Stage and whose work here shows the patina of their sustained effort, work well together as an ensemble and individually. Especially noteworthy are the efforts of Phylicia Rashad, best known as Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, but just as worthy of attention for her subtle portrayal of Peggy; Jewell Robinson, who makes the strong-willed and tongued grandmother a highlight of the play's comedy without overstepping; and, less circumscribed but no less appealing, Messeret Stroman. Randall Shepperd and Howard Overshown (in the second act) do remarkably well conveying the polished agreeability of the successful undertaker -- a discrete gregariousness -- along the father-son continuum.

Debra Bauer's costumes are particularly good -- from the frighteningly accurate 70's wear of the first act to the more reasonable clothing of the recent past. She gives Peggy a series of lovely outfits that exemplify her taste, shows LaTonya's transition from "common" to pseudo-sophisticate and back again and installs Blue in a sharkskin suit that simmers in just the right way. Michael Gilliam's lighting is also first rate, which brings us to James Leonard Joy's set design which, although eliciting threshold satisfaction, proves to be particularly annoying. He chose to solve the show's many scene changes by means of motorized shifting of backdrops and furniture which unpardonably and noisily interferes with stage action, to the point of drawing focus.

This is, I believe, the first show to transfer to New York from Arena Stage (which commissioned the work and where Randolph-Wright is now officially associated) since The Great White Hope in 1968. While it might not quite rise to the level of that play, it's a most worthwhile addition to the theatrical literature.

Tony Howell