Nothing tops the three-minute pop song for reducing life's messy calculus to a simple equation. Cue up Marvin Gaye's "I Want You," for instance, and one's intent could hardly be clearer. The snag is that once the tune is over, our problems remain. So it goes in Charles Randolph-Wright's Blue, where music masks secrets and dilemmas that run deeper than the everyday.
The action opens in the South Carolina of the 1970s, where the genteel Clark family owns a funeral home (a detail plucked from the playwright's own biography). This post makes them the most prominent African American family in town; they even appear on the cover of Ebony as a model of success and uprightness. Samuel (Shawn Hamilton), the patriarch, is marked chiefly by his ability to overlook the general nuttiness of his wife Peggy (Austene Van), a glammed-out former model whose main preoccupation is spending his money. Though she may be at the top of the town's black social order, she disdainfully proclaims their environs "the middle of nowhere."
Peggy's main balm is the records of Blue Williams (Dennis Spears), an old-school soul singer. Son Reuben (Blaine Crawford) jams on his trumpet to funk records when Peggy is away, but upon her return it's all Blue, all the time. In a nice, wistful touch, the show bends reality in the early going as the older Reuben (Namir Smallwood) travels back in time to offer advice to his younger self.
The second departure from the mundane is the arrival of Blue himself. When Van drops the needle on a Blue record (they all bear names like Royal Blue, Midnight Blue, and Indigo Blue; yes, Kind of Blue was already taken), Spears slides onstage and sings with silken smoothness. Yet the spectacle of another character discordantly singing along causes Spears to grimace and make himself scarce. When another song cuts off the record mid-track, he looks as though he has bitten into a lemon before disappearing into the wings.
Pop-soul-rock phenom Nona Hendryx composed the music (collaborating with Randolph-Wright on the lyrics), and generally sticks to variations on the well-crafted slow jam. But while music is integral to the show, Spears rarely has the chance to get through more than a verse or two of any particular song. The music numbers act as texture rather than the foundation of the action.
So what do we have, if not a traditional musical? A thorny family drama, in which Peggy's secret-keeping and haughtily bizarre treatment of her family drives everyone around the bend. There's a great running gag in the first act, when Peggy buys exotic food for the family's ritual Friday-evening dinners (Van wears a kimono for Japanese night). Another part of the ritual: Peggy pretends she has cooked the meal herself—and expects everyone to play along.
By the second act it's the '90s, and bad son Sam (Keith Bolden) has turned into an amoral capitalist. (Bolden convincingly shows us the rotten tree of the grown-up player in the bent seedling of the younger ne'er-do-well). Sweet Reuben has become a record-store owner in Seattle who's seeing a shrink to uncoil the knot Peggy has tied in his psyche.
The second act depends on a plot twist that I won't reveal—though as with the horn intro to a great soul tune, you can sense the lyrics coming. It can safely be said, though, that this drama ultimately hinges on the dynamic between keeping up appearances and making some accord with the truth. The Clarks' Ebony cover from the first act, for instance, appears later, enlarged and framed, a great pop metaphor for the surface of this ostensibly perfect family, disguising the roiling mess beneath. By this time, the male Clarks are drinking more than they probably should. There's not enough liquor in Charleston, though, to shut out Peggy and her subtly astringent criticisms of the way her boys lead their lives. Essentially, no one is fabulous enough for her.
Yet for all her transgressions, at the end of the evening I kind of liked Peggy. Which is to say that Van's crucial portrayal probably doesn't project the toxicity that poisons the years of the menfolk. Even in her darkest passages, Van's Peggy remains glamorous, and charmingly willing to indulge in silliness. Though it's a clever and thoroughly entertaining production that Lou Bellamy has directed, I can't quite make out the blue notes, the drops in tone that evoke the weighty sadness beneath the surface. When the song ends, it's over—time to cue up another 45.