Friday, October 04, 2013

'Pullman Porter Blues' a Satisfying Journey Over Familiar Ground --Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Pullman Porter Blues 
a play (with live music) by Cheryl West
directed by Chuck Smith
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October

There are a lot of good things about Pullman Porter Blues--the new show at Goodman--including three good men.

Although not technically billed as a musical, the recently-created, two-act piece features several terrific blues numbers played live on stage and sung wonderfully by the likes of E. Faye Butler and Larry Marshall.

The acting is excellent throughout, including strong work from Marshall, as Monroe Sykes, senior porter on a Pullman rail car, Cleavant Derricks as his son, Sylvester, also a porter, and Tosin Morohunfola as Cephus, their grandson and son respectively, who is making his first journey as a Pullman porter. And having seen them many times on Chicago stages, it was no surprise that Butler--playing a blues singer named Sister Juba--and Francis Guinan--as Tex, the train's racist and petty conductor--were also wonderful.

The set design by Riccardo Hernandez--basically a full size replica rail car designed to seamlessly accommodate scene changes--is terrifically impressive.

And Cheryl West's script, saluting the dedication and decorum of Pullman Porters while decrying their
mistreatment, is informative, funny, poignant and--when the songs are worked in--buoyant.

All told, the positives of Pullman Porter Blues make for an enjoyable night of theater while broaching familiar themes in an original way.

But while I was sufficiently entertained, and even enlightened, I can't say I was all that engrossed by the narrative. 

The events of the play primarily focus on the three generations of Sykes men as porters on a Pullman train bound from Chicago to New Orleans, over the course of a night in 1937 when Joe Louis fought James "Cinderella Man" Braddock for boxing's World Heavyweight Championship. 

Beyond exploring the often-strained paternal relationships among the three, and providing a unifying asshole in Guinan's Tex character, West weaves in Sister Juba (Butler) and a train-jumping, harmonica-humming young white woman named Lutie, who befriends Cephus in risk of bigoted malevolence.

I don't mean to imply that the truth of how badly African-Americans have often been treated since coming to America as slaves can ever be told enough. And in telling it while introducing many to a bygone age and profession, West certainly scores points for originality.

But very little that happens in Pullman Porter Blues took me by surprise, including--of course--the outcome of the Louis-Braddock title fight.

All the typical tropes and themes one might expect were aboard this train--except for, as shown on-stage, ignorant and demeaning passengers--and while some of the messaging was powerful, little felt particularly revelatory.

Not to shortchange the strong acting, compelling characters and heavy undertones, but my favorite parts of Pullman Porter Blues were almost invariably the songs.

If this show isn't officially a musical, it should be.

For not only, at this point, do the plotline and spoken-word scenes not congeal perfectly around the interspersed tunes--played by an impressive live band that just happens to be hanging out in the lounge car--but though the premise of Pullman Porter Blues is on clearly track, as a "play" it uniformly stops short of traveling deep enough into uncharted territory.

Nonetheless, for those looking for nice blend of great blues music and thoughtful theater, Pullman is worth getting on board--particularly if you can take advantage of some nice discounts through HotTix or the Goodman box office.

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