Therefore, it's all the more disappointing that the production at The Pasadena Playhouse, with a cast led by Robin Givens and directed by Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, holds so much promise but doesn't entirely live up to it.
Set in Harlem during the Great Depression, Blues is largely about hopeful dreams in hopeless times. All five characters within the play are trying to find a way to keep their dreams of love, career and service alive in a time of great economic and emotional despair.
Angel (a serviceable Givens) is a homeless, self-centered, out-of-work chanteuse who fuels her agony with alcohol and relies on charm, sex appeal and blatant manipulation to get what she needs from those around her. That includes her flamboyant gay best friend, Guy (a satisfactory Kevin T. Carroll), an unemployed costume designer who takes care of Angel even as he dreams of dressing legendary performer Josephine Baker in his original creations.
There's also jovial, big-hearted Sam (a standout performance by the thoroughly engaging Kadeem Hardison), a local doctor who works long hours at the hospital and spends his limited spare time helping Guy's pretty, young social worker neighbor, Delia (lovely Tessa Thompson), to establish an abortion clinic. And then there's the towering Leland (a convincing Robert Ray Manning, Jr.), a devout, conservative Christian, recently widowed, who sees in Angel a chance to reclaim lost love.
Scenic designer John Iacovelli has set Guy's and Delia's apartments -- and the hallway between them -- on a large turntable which, unfortunately, is noisy to the point of great annoyance when it rotates (which is often). Delia's apartment is a simple, homey place. The only extravagance is a beautiful green evening gown (costumes by Karen Perry) sent by a relative (on a glaringly modern hanger) that Angel immediately cajoles Delia into letting her wear for an upcoming audition.
Guy's apartment is a busy combination of living quarters for he and Angel/hangout for their friends/designer's workshop, with a neat rack of shiny, glittery costumes stationed beneath pinned up costume sketches and posters of the idolized Josephine. It does seem odd, though, that given her influence on Guy's life that we never hear Baker's music, either through a cheap radio or on well-played records. Also odd is the uneven use of transition music, which is non-existent in Act I and suddenly startles halfway through Act II.
No doubt the production will find great popular appeal, particularly with the name draw of Givens. And while there is much to admire, there are also elements that fall a little short. One wishes, for example, that Epps had allowed some significant moments in the show to have a little more breathing room. Instead there is the occasional feeling of sacrificing depth for pace.
With Perry's everyday costumes, looking good appears to take precedence over the reality of circumstances. Summertime in Depression-era Harlem would seem to call for a touch of distressing in those pieces. Doesn't anyone sweat in the summer? Does any woman really roll out of bed, as Angel does, from a night of drunken debauchery with dress unwrinkled, hair perfectly coiffed and make-up still intact? These may be small points, but details tell the story as much, if not more, than the big picture.