Theatre in Review

One of the most striking presentations of a drama grounded in music is TimeLine Theatre’s Paradise Blue. It is not a musical, nor a review - rather it is a “jazz infused” production.

Powerful original music was composed by Orbert Davis, the founder of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. The music has been recorded and is played as incidental and transitional themes in the play, giving it a strong supporting role but without overwhelming the production - akin to the role of the set.

Paradise Blue is set in 1949 in Detroit. It tells the story of a trumpeter, Blue (Al’Jaleel McGhee) running the Paradise nightclub in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood. As Detroit thrives in the post-war boom years, property values are rising and the area is a target for development.

Blue carries a lot of emotional baggage from a rough upbringing and the violent home life with his battling parents, a heartbreaking and tragic story revealed in the play, which leaves him orphaned, and haunted. Into this setting Morriseau brings a retinue of characters, and each one well-developed and memorable – which is quite an achievement: P-Sam (Charles Andrew Gardner), Corn (Ronald L Conner), and Pumpkin (Kristin E Ellis).

Those many strong characters do put a strain on the advance of the action, as we get a good deal of dialog about the background and aspirations of each. That is the kind of thing that could get balanced out in future productions which Paradise Blue clearly warrants. 

The play carries a noire styling, and this line is expressed with dynamic energy with the arrival of a mysterious stranger from New Orleans: Silver, played with amazing power by Tyla Abercrumbie. In fact, Abercrumbie's performance is so strong, she really stands out from the rest of the cast. She is exciting to watch from the moment she arrives and every second the spotlight is on her. Abercrumbie is also a pro, and balances the moments she plays opposite others, and doesn't overwhelm them - though I suspect she could. 

Unlike many plays about musicians, in this one the lead, Al’Jaleel McGhee, picks up a horn and blows. He plays intentionally weakly at one point, then gets his note at a pivotal point. Director Ron OJ Parson has McGhee play the theme line written for the show, then dissolves it into an artful reverb that fades away. Very very nice. The rest of the music was performed by Davis and members of Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, featuring Rajiv Halim, and recorded and mixed by Roger Heiss at Tone Zone Studio in Chicago. It was  The Chicago Community Trust. 

This play was recommended to me by those great folks at Hot Tix as I searched for one worth seeing, so I bought a ticket. Now I am saying the same to you. Paradise Blue runs through July 23 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W Wellington in Chicago. 

Published in Theatre in Review

I’ve never been to Havana, Cuba. I never even saw Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. But after seeing the world premiere of River North Dance Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s performance of “Havana Blue,” Havana is definitely a place that I would hop on a plane and visit in a heartbeat. I am of course basing this decision entirely upon the hope that everyone breaks out into expertly choreographed dances to express emotions and feelings for the city they reside in. Regardless, the premiere of “Havana Blue” was a wonderful and entertaining surprise.

Havana Blue 08 Photo by Cheryl Mann

“Havana Blue” was created and collaborated on by choreographer Frank Chaves and jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis. They traveled the streets of Cuba, immersing themselves into the culture, the nightlife, exploring the country’s musical routes. What they came back with was a beautiful ensemble that celebrates the life and exuberance that is Havana.

Entering the theater and the show, I was far from the most knowledgeable about Jazz or Cuban life and culture. Jazz lovers and dance lovers alike flocked to see “Havana Blue” to make it a nearly sold-out performance, a feat I had never seen at the Auditorium Theater. The crowd was energetic and lively, freely swaying back and forth to the music and even jumping up in the aisles to dance. Everyone in the audience, including my friend who accompanied me, knew when Orbert Davis said ‘Dizzy,’ knew to respond with ‘Gillespie.’ But I soon discovered, when the curtain went up and the music started to play, I didn’t need to know a great deal about the show, or jazz history, to appreciate the art forms performing in front of me.

Havana Blue 04 Photo by Cheryl Mann

The curtains rose to reveal a brass jazz band, the brass twinkling under the bright stage lights, set against a dark brick wall. It was an impressive sight, and just as visually stunning as the gorgeous dance pairs of River North Dance Chicago that opened the show, the women in flowing blue dresses, the men in sexy-tight pants and open shirts, muy caliente.

“Havana Blue” is comprised of a several sultry and powerful dance segments, each representing a mood that you could find in the life-pulse of the Cuban city. One of the more notable dances was “Solteras" ("Single Ladies"), which many found to be a sad(ish) dance in which one woman was not being coupled up to dance with male partners. But the solo woman did not dance with a dejected rhythm but a “que sera sera” style, retaining a sexiness and comfortableness with dancing alone. Indeed, the women shifted partners, each woman getting a chance to dance solo while the couples danced around them. As the “Solteras” danced, there were smiles on their faces, not longing. I viewed the dance as empowerment for women, not romantic yearning because they weren’t coupled up. The women danced in spite of not having a partner and danced beautifully and strong, not slumped and saddened. (Cue female empowerment music: 'All the solteras, all the solteras,' kidding). Shortly after that performance was another notable dance segment "Lo Masculino" ("The Masculine"). To sum up the performance in one word: steamy. The males of River North Dance Chicago performed shirtless to a powerhouse number filled with masculinity, sweaty six-pack abs, and moves that would have made Baryshnikov proud. It was the perfect blend of power and rhythm that really made "Havana Blue" pop and sizzle.

Havana Blue 05 Photo by Cheryl Mann

“Havana Blue” completely embodied the sensual, powerful, and allure of the Havana culture. The artistic direction of Frank Chaves with River North Dance Chicago and the artistic direction of Orbert Davis was a match made in the streets of Havana. These two men created a show that will surely be enjoyed for years to come. Should you see “Havana Blue” coming to a city near you, or to our very own Chicago again, be sure to samba your way to see this show, you will not be decepcionado.

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

10 Years! Fave Issue Covers

Register

Latest Articles

  • Review: Machinal at Greenhouse Theater Center
    Written by
    Machinal refers to an automated or mechanical system. Sophie Treadwell's 1929 play "Machinal" takes its styling from this theme. Directed by Jacob Harvey, Greenhouse Theater Center brings this work back to Chicago for the first time in many years. Maybe…
  • "The Rembrandt" begins September 7th with John Mahoney and Francis Guinan
    Written by
    Steppenwolf Theatre Company opens its 42nd Season with the Chicago premiere of The Rembrandt, written by Jessica Dickey and directed by Hallie Gordon. Currently in rehearsals, this subtle and elegant play features ensemble members Francis Guinan as Henry/Rembrandt and John…
  • Latin Paradise - Santana Live at Ravinia
    Written by
    The summer concert season continues at Ravinia. Midsummer brings to the Midwest one of the toughest guitarists on the planet. The act that has graced the stages with the most famous performers at Woodstock has come to Ravinia in Highland…
  • Delbert McClinton - One of the Fortunate Few
    Written by
    I have been waiting to see Delbert McClinton for a while. It just never happened for me…timing, etc. Finally, it happened. I even took my Mom who is as big a fan as I am. Warming up for Delbert was…