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Jazz magic played in the key of change in ‘Paradise Blue’

Charles Andrew Gardner (from left), Tyla Abercrumbie, Ronald L. Conner and Al'Jaleel McGhee in "Paradise Blue," a play by Dominique Morisseau at TimeLine Theatre. (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

Playwright Dominique Morisseau might well be on her way to becoming the 21st century’s female equivalent of August Wilson. She is that good. The latest proof comes with TimeLine Theatre’s scorching production of “Paradise Blue” — the centerpiece of her “Detroit Trilogy,” which includes “Detroit ’67,” and “Skeleton Crew,” which had its premiere last year.

Of course it takes a great director to draw out the full radiance of a great play. And as anyone who has seen Ron OJ Parson’s bravura productions will tell you (the evidence ranges from “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Sunset Baby” at TimeLine, to “East Texas Hot Links” at Writers Theatre, to several Court Theatre editions of Wilson’s plays), the man brings a certain voodoo magic to everything he touches.

A master of casting, Parson also taps the talents of musicians and designers who are in perfect sync with his vision. And in “Paradise Blue” — which might best be described as a “spoken jazz opera with bluesy overtones,” in which the dialogue, poetry and musical riffs are seamless extensions of one other — every note is pitch perfect.

Highly recommended
When: Through July 23
Where: TimeLine Theatre,
615 W. Wellington
Tickets: $38 – $51
Info: (773) 281-8463;
Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes with one intermission

Al’Jaleel McGhee plays Blue and Kristin E. Ellis is Pumpkin in the TimeLine Theatre production of Dominique Morisseau’s play “Paradise Blue.” (Photo: Lara Goetsch)

The year is 1949. The place is Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood — once a thriving enclave of black-owned businesses that has become rundown, and is now slated for urban renewal, a term the characters in Morisseau’s play understand as a euphemism for “urban removal” of the African-American population.

Still holding on to his Paradise jazz club and boarding house, located in what was once considered a prime spot (but perhaps still bears the scars of the often forgotten race riots of 1943), is Blue (a seething, volatile turn by Al’Jaleel McGhee). A gifted but emotionally troubled trumpet player, he is haunted by the memory of his father, who also was a jazz musician and owned the club. And like his father he is on a perpetual but ever elusive quest for “a love supreme” — that moment when he can finally tap into the sweet spot that brings his music to a spiritual climax.

And now Blue is being torn in many directions. Should he sell his property to developers, becoming the hated linchpin who ceded the neighborhood? Or will he be the person who prevents everyone else from making some money and moving on? After all, his bass player has just left the band; he has grown fed up with his drummer, P-Sam (a most engaging Charles Andrew Gardner), who is living in the building rent-free, and he knows his veteran pianist, the shy widower Corn (a beautifully limned turn by Ronald L. Conner), will never leave Detroit. And equally devoted to the neighborhood is Blue’s young lover, Pumpkin (Kristin E. Ellis, who ideally captures the well-educated but sweetly naive and “suffer anything for love” nature of this young woman). Pumpkin, who ably manages the club, possesses a gift for poetry and spoken-word performance, but has no talent as a singer who might bring back its dwindling crowds.

Enter a stranger. Her name is Silver (Tyla Abercrumbie in a knockout turn at once sexy and dangerous). A worldly seductress with a scandalous reputation, she is quickly dubbed “the witch” and “evil spider.” With plenty of cash, and motives that are hardly pure, she promises to be big trouble. Tired of being in thrall to men, she wants to own the club. And while she’s at it she decides to “liberate” Pumpkin, who is (like the musicians) both wary of her and in awe.

If all this sounds a bit melodramatic, well, it is (though it is not without humor, either). And Parson’s actors bring such feverish conviction and style to their roles that they turn the play into something akin to grand opera in the American grain, with a splendid original score by Orbert Davis, the Emmy Award-winning trumpeter, composer and artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. (McGhee plays several actual riffs on the trumpet, and sound designer Christopher A. Kriz has seen to it that they are seamlessly fused with Davis’ recordings.)

Brian Sidney Bembridge, that maestro of design, has reconfigured the TimeLine space and devised a set (and lighting) that ideally incorporates the Paradise’s bar, bandstand and upstairs room. And Christine Pascual’s costumes easily define both the characters and 1940s style.

As for that “love supreme” — let’s just say that in terms of a love-death pursuit it offers a fine jazzy variation on  “Tristan and Isolde.” A great evening in the theater.

NOTE: Another (earlier) play by Morisseau, “Blood at the Root,” just completed a run by The Yard, that bedazzling ensemble of Chicago high school students who easily could pass for seasoned professionals. Presented in collaboration with Jackalope Theatre and co-directed by Joel Ewing and Will Kiley, the production featured stunning performances by Ireon Roach, Jenna Makkawy, Danielle Chmieiewki, Victor Musoni, Brian Baren and Tevion Lanier in a tale of racial upheaval at a high school in Louisiana. Remember their names.

Ronald L. Conner plays Corn and Tyla Abercrumbie is Silver in the TimeLine Theatre production of Dominique Morisseau’s play “Paradise Blue.” (Photo: Lara Goetsch)