Geva Theatre Center is presenting an absolutely thrilling production of Charles Randolph-Wright and Nona Hendryx's Blue, an oddity, but a brilliant one. Randolph-Wright's script is so loaded with genuine comedy and human emotions that I'm sorry to note that it is also predictable and often trite, like a sitcom. But I don't care. If it isn't a fine drama or exactly a chamber musical, it is a musical drama showcasing much artistry, and an undeniable audience-pleaser.
Blue's plot is both about and underscored by the wonderful jazz music that Ms. Hendryx (one-third of the group LaBelle with Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash) composed with Randolph-Wright's lyrics and overall plan. The music is recorded, but the songs are sung live by Kevyn Morrow who plays the fictional great singer Blue Williams. Geva sells CDs of the music.
We focus on the elegant interior of Samuel Clark, Jr.'s house. Obviously wealthy, the Clarks are the only African-Americans to own a funeral home in fictional Kent, South Carolina. Designer Marjorie Smith Bradley's astonishingly rich, inventive scenic designs not only impress, but also characterize the family's wealth, pretensions, emphasis on modern art and music, and --- as the play progresses --- changing tastes.
Similarly, Susan E. Mickey's delicious costumes show us both how admirable and how tacky the dress and attitudes of these characters can get. Without naming them all, let's just say that this production, niftily directed by Kenny Leon, has enlisted an artistic staff of super-pros, whose work is expectedly superb in all categories.
Ditto the great-looking cast, who look like models chosen for their roles when the plot has this family making the cover of Ebony magazine. Peter Jay Fernandez plays Samuel Clark, Jr. as an admirably aware family head who deals with his wife's controlling nature and role-playing out of love, and adjusts to his life's restrictions and disappointments out of practicality.
Denise Burse (actually Mr. Fernandez's wife) is quite wonderful as Samuel's wife Peggy, a beautiful former model, a clotheshorse and fashion maven, who pretends that she cooks the meals she orders from foreign-cuisine restaurants. Peggy instructs her family on how to dress, behave, and appreciate the arts. And she is obsessed with the career and music of recording star Blue.
Her sons are variously rebellious or obedient. Actor Rashad J. Anthony skillfully develops Samuel Clark III from a sullen bad boy to a conforming, successful heir, both personas oversexed and resentful underneath. Young Darnell Smith, Jr. gives physically vivacious movement and contrasting portrayals to young Reuben and later Baby Blue, a look-alike son of LaTonya, Sam III's former girlfriend.
First as a loud, tasteless girl and later as Peggy's sad protégé, Tinase Kajese is impressive as LaTonya. Yusef Miller plays the older Reuben, who has to go through a revealing and often amusing series of changes in hair, clothes, and general demeanor as he follows, then resists his mother's control.
Brenda Thomas plays Sam Jr.'s mother Tillie Clark with a good deal of sarcastic humor and eventually is allowed to display a native dignity.
And then there's Blue. We hear about him as an idolized musician and as someone who has clearly had some personal influence on this family. We see actor Kevyn Morrow pantomiming Blue Williams whenever he is mentioned or his records are supposedly played. And we hear him sing not only songs whose lyrics comment on the play but also music that indicates Blue's growth in styles and influences over the years. Morrow doesn't speak a word until the play is almost over, but he doesn't need to.
Worth noting is that in a 1999 review of Thunder Knocking on the Door at Geva I wrote that Mr. Morrow "seems young and sexy enough to belie his veteran credits, including seven Broadway shows." Now add an Olivier nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for Ragtime in London.
But as Thunder, I found Peter Jay Fernandez, who has a non-musical role as the father here, dominating the show and "singing superbly" and noted that "Fernandez plays a mean harmonica." This show really has a knockout company all down the line.
Blue,by Charles Randolph-Wright, music by Nona Hendryx, directed by Kenny Leon, plays at Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., through May 16. Tix: $13 to $47.50 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.