Paper Mill Playhouse
Millburn, NJ - January 2003

Review by John Kenrick

A warm, intimate, thoroughly entertaining and amazingly funny family play brimming with sentiment, believable characters and genuine joy? Yes, such a thing is still possible, but you won't find it on Broadway. New Jersey's Paper Mill State Theatre has brought in the first big scale production of Blue, a show which had audiences cheering last year in a smaller Roundabout Theatre version. It is a wonderful New Year's gift to audiences, and if you are anywhere nearby I strongly urge you to check out this engaging show.

Somewhere in South Carolina during the 1970's, a small town African American family that revolves the whims of Peggy Clark, a former fashion model who is obsessed with style and unable to accept anything "common" for herself or her family. She is also devoted to the music of jazz singer Blue Williams, who's recordings form a background track to every family gathering and event. Unable to cook, Peggy sneaks in food from local gourmet restaurants for weekly family dinners -- and everyone pretends not to notice, rather than rock the boat. We watch Peggy's loving but infuriating behavior through the eyes of her younger son Reuben, a musician who his mamma has tagged for artistic greatness. But there are long-buried secrets that must be unearthed, and the complicated Peggy is a formidable obstacle to her own happiness, as well as the happiness of her family.

Not a full-blown musical, this is more a play with musical commentary. Charles Randolph-Wright has fashioned a script that offers moments of uproarious comedy and heartfelt pain, all of which fit together thanks to the solidly written characters. Although this is a play about a Black southern family, audiences of every race and age should be able to relate to it. It is ultimately about family, and how difficult it can be to love those in our families warts and all. It is no surprise that this show has been winning raves in regional productions -- it is the kind of well-written, feel-good play that audiences can never get enough of and snooty pseudo-intellectual critics cannot abide. James Leonard Joy's handsome set, Debra Bauer's period perfect costumes, and Michael Gilliam's expert lighting all come together thanks to solid direction by Sheldon Epps. The potentially tricky presence of the jazz singer as a sort of Greek chorus is handled with ease, keeping everything clearly focused and well-paced at all times.

Every one of the eight characters gets their share golden moments, and the Paper Mill cast makes the most of most every one of them. Leslie Uggams is sensational as Peggy, filling her with so much life-affirming energy that its impossible to hate her -- even when she's at her most impossible. It is a moving, tour-de-force performance that reminds us what a powerful actress she is. Michael McElroy is a knock-out as Blue, with his sizzling renditions of songs by Nona Hendryx and Charles Randolph Wright providing the perfect commentary on all that occurs. (These songs, covering a wide range of styles, are all first-rate.)

Jacques Smith (best known as Leroy Tidd on HBO's Oz) plays the adult Reuben with extraordinary vulnerability, stepping in and out of the action to provide narration at crucial moments. Willie C. Carpenter is vital and brilliantly understated as Peggy's long-suffering but always loving husband, and Chris Butler scores major points as the older son who gives up rebellion in favor of success. Felicia Wilson is excellent as the inelegant LaTanya, and the wonderful Amentha Dymally is a scene-stealing riot as the grandmother who stands up to Peggy's maddening eccentricities.

When I think of some of the mindless, heartless garbage that makes it to Broadway, it infuriates me that a solid entertaining show like Blue has to go elsewhere to find a home. But I'm more than  delighted that "elsewhere" happens to include Paper Mill, and this fine production. As Peggy Clark says of similar pleasures, it is "divine."

This production closed Feb. 9, 2003.

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