I understand that opening night isn't always the glorious shining gem that it ought to be. Sometimes, no matter how good a show it may be, it's just not quite there yet. Such was the case with the Seattle Rep's opening night of Cheryl L. West's new play with music "Pullman Porter Blues". With a combination of opening night nerves, technical gaffs and a muffled sound system, it just wasn't the show I was so eagerly awaiting since I saw the workshop of the piece some years back. But even through its shortcomings the show still managed to shine through with history and heart and had some killer moments.
It's 1937 and the eve of the legendary boxing match between Joe Louis and Jim Braddock and hopes are high among the porters on the luxurious Panama Limited Train that the Brown Bomber will become the first black heavyweight champion. But beyond the national history being decided there's a personal history unfolding for three generations of porters all working the same train. Monroe (Larry Marshall) is guiding his grandson Cephas (Warner Miller) through his first night as a porter much to the dismay of Cephas' father Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) who just wants Cephas in college and not working the train. Old relationships and tragedies are uncovered as new ones form on this fateful night all put to some iconic blues music from the era performed by a live band.
The show itself is a winner with its incredible music and tragically beautiful story as it shows a moment in history that not everyone is familiar with. I just think it wasn't quite done baking.
Marshall is riveting as the beleaguered older generation who's seen it all and knows how to work the system. Derricks is excellent as the father just trying to give his son a better life and still make his own better. The idealistic naiveté of Miller is infectious and sets up a wonderful tone for the show. And all three leads each do a fine job portraying the differing attitudes of the generations. Richard Ziman is completely detestable as the narrow minded Train Conductor Tex and Emily Chisholm is appealing as the homeless stowaway Lutie; however I would have liked to have seen more depth from both characters and explore how they got where they were. I seem to recall getting more out of their characters in the workshop so I'm not quite certain if the lack of depth is the writing, the performances or direction from Lisa Peterson. Or it could be my own memory filling in gaps that weren't there but in any case I would have liked more fleshed out people there.
But the absolute stunner and roof raiser of the show had to be E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba, the singer on the train who has more of a history with the Pullman line than initially thought. Not only does she completely stop the show with every song she wails (not sings, wails), and shoots off more attitude filled quips than an entire room of drag queens, but her scene of revelation in Act Two gets you down to your very bones. And of course I have to mention the remarkable band for the evening of James Patrick Hill, Chic Street Man, Lamar Lofton and Jmichael who kept the eponymous blues flowin'.
With all that plus it's gorgeous set and costumes from Riccardo Hernandez and Constanza Romero, the show has all the earmarks for a hit and an astounding start to the Rep's 50th Anniversary season. I just hope the show can continue to bake a little and settle in as it continues its run.
"Pullman Porter Blues" performs at Seattle Repertory Theatre through October 28th. For tickets or information contact the Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or visit them online at www.seattlerep.org.
Photo credits: Chris Bennion