Theater review: ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky’ at Pasadena Playhouse
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Never mind the A train -- you can get to Harlem on the 134 to catch Pasadena Playhouse’s jubilant, stylish revival of “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” In director Sheldon Epps’ confident hands, Pearl Cleage’s 1996 dramedy set in the Harlem Renaissance feels as smart and tart as star Robin Givens’ sequined flapper shifts.
“Blues” made its away around the regional circuit a decade ago, but somehow it feels fresh. Maybe that’s because uptown New York circa 1930 looks awfully familiar: rampant unemployment, culture wars and fierce battles over gay rights and abortion. But people dressed a lot snappier in the Jazz Age, or at least they do in this production, with Karen Perry’s knockout costumes central to the story.
Guy (Kevin T. Carroll) dreams of designing outfits for Josephine Baker, but in the meantime he’ll settle for dressing Angel (Givens), a jobless chanteuse recently dumped by her gangster beau. Angel sets her cool eye on recent transplant Leland (Robert Ray Manning Jr.), a solemn widower looking to fill a hole in his heart. Across the hall, Delia (Tessa Thompson) wants to open a family clinic with the help of Sam (Kadeem Hardison), a doctor who delivers bootleggers’s babies when he’s not pulling long shifts at Harlem Hospital. Everybody has a dream, but the rent money’s running out. How long can a wish be deferred?
John Iacovelli’s revolving apartment set creaks like a stubborn wheelbarrow, adding to the atmosphere of people living on their last crumpled dollar in the sugar bowl. The cheap rooms inhabited by these bighearted souls are surrounded by dozens of upstage tenement windows that glow with promise when night falls (courtesy of Jared A. Sayeg’s evocative lighting).
Like that ornery set, the plot turns in somewhat expected ways, but Cleage is exploring the nature of survival. Some live for love or art, others for the dream of change; hard to see the fine line between useful delusions and willful blindness. One thing’s for sure: Those who betray themselves are doomed.
Epps delivers this period tale with flair, drawing vibrant performances from his ensemble, anchored by two rock-solid leads. The irresistible Carroll is worthy of his astonishing chartreuse hat, and a wary, restless Givens drapes herself over the nearest piece of furniture with studied feline allure. Certain moments could become deeper, more reflective, and that’s likely to happen as the run continues. In the meantime, come on by for some romance, hooch and hollering. Mr. Epps and his Playhouse know how to let the good times roll.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Blues for an Alabama Sky,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 27. $29 to $59; premium, $100. (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.