Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Stunning “Blues” at the Pasadena Playhouse
Every once in a while going to the theater stops being a job and starts being just a pleasure. That’s when I know I’m watching something extraordinary. Walking away from the Pasadena Playhouse production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” Pearl Cleage’s 1999 tribute to depression-era Harlem, I had that feeling. It’s a beautiful, meaningful play given a taut and splendid production.
And, by the way, after a few fuzzy or false starts, The Pasadena Playhouse is back. Really back. This production is proof.
Director, and Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps has gathered a top notch cast, given the piece equally high quality production values, and let this lyrical, resonant play have its head. The charm comes from the words, which sing with a topical poetry. The charm comes from the nuanced performances and the ways in which Epps dresses his stage with people and ideas.
The story balances practicality, grasping, and dreams. Angel Allen and Guy Jacobs have just been fired from one of the last nightclubs in increasingly bedraggled Harlem. For Angel this is a slippery slope, but Guy holds fast to his dream of some day designing costumes for Josephine Baker.
These two, who live like a dysfunctional but loving family, expand their world to make room for their neighbor Delia, a social worker connected to Margaret Sanger, and Sam, a doctor who fuels his exhaustive and exhausting medical work with nights on the town. Into this world comes Leland, a grieving Alabama widower with small town values – a man Angel craves for stability, but whose views of life don’t mesh with Harlem’s sophisticated air.
Tessa Thompson’s Delia becomes a light under a bushel, just waiting for the right moment. Kadeem Hardison gives Sam that delicate balance of fragile exhaustion and rich inner strength which makes his boisterous enthusiasm a human thing. Robert Ray Manning, Jr.’s stolid, unsubtle but strong Leland makes his outsider status almost physical simply through stance and the crook of a head.
Still, the portraits you will remember are Robin Givens’ brittle, desperately conflicted Angel, and Kevin T. Carroll’s enthusiastically flamboyantly gay Guy. The energy of Carroll’s performance lights a fire under everything else, and balances the gray of Angel’s worldly-wise grasping.
All of this comes on a physically remarkable set, courtesy of John Iacovelli. It puts an apartment house on a turntable, allowing one to peer into one apartment, the hallway, or the opposite apartment in turns, while the drama continues to roll on nonstop. Backed by a host of anonymous windows, it embodies the city glow of the period, thanks to the lighting of Jared A Sayeg.
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is riveting theater: engaging, touching and in the end compelling. As a play it remains true to its characters, avoiding clichés and cheap shots. Its resonance with our current times proves profound, even as it remains authentically rooted in its own era. Given this rich a production, it is simply not to be missed. And to think, this was a “replacement” brought in during a shuffle in the season. There is a certain irony in its being the best thing I’ve seen at the Playhouse since the theater reopened last year.
What: “Blues for an Alabama Sky” When: Through November 27, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $ 39 – $69 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org