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Originally published Friday, October 5, 2012 at 1:08 PM

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'Pullman Porter Blues' carries pungent blues and heavy melodrama

Seattle Repertory Theatre begins its 50th season with the world premiere of "Pullman Porter Blues," a new musical play about black train porters, by Seattle author Cheryl West.

Seattle Times theater critic

Additional performances

'Pullman Porter Blues'

By Cheryl L. West. Through Oct. 28 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$45 (206-443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org)
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Theater review |

"Pullman Porter Blues" starts with the mournful work chant of a railway chain gang, followed by the breezy singing of Pullman porters, as they apply spit and polish to a snazzy sleeper car.

That's a portent of what Cheryl L. West's new musical play, "Pullman Porter Blues," sets out to do, in Lisa Peterson's world debut production at Seattle Repertory Theatre: pay homage to generations of African-American railway workers in bluesy song and chipper dance, while also dramatizing intense familial and racial clashes, historic injustices and effusions of black pride.

That's heavy freight for this commissioned opener of the Rep's 50th anniversary season. The vehicle bears up under the burden for much of the show. But in the homestretch, "Pullman Porter Blues" lags from overload.

There's much to enjoy in the friskier first act, as we're swept along on a 1937 train run bound from Chicago to New Orleans.

With set designer Riccardo Hernandez's facsimile of a luxury Pullman car — a marvel of polished wood and gleaming brass — we're going first class. But in Seattle writer West's promising conceit, we view the journey from the perspective of capable black porters — who are, alas, still second-class citizens.

Despite hardships aplenty, there's pride and a jazzy bounce in the step of the aged porter, Monroe (delightful Broadway veteran Larry Marshall), and his awed trainee grandson Cephas (Warner Miller). Preparing for the trip, the two eagerly await the radio broadcast of a prize fight that will make African-American hero Joe Louis a champ.

Musicians stroll aboard to josh, jive and jam on some tasty Chicago blues. And look out, here's Sister Juba (fire-powered E. Faye Butler) — the epitome of a lusty, whiskey-sipping, trash-talking blues mama, with a zinger for every occasion and the cash to travel in style.

So far so good. We're in lively company, and West's genius for colloquial argot is as pungent as the lyrics in the vintage blues stompers and laments in Jmichael's vibrant score.

Complications set in as Monroe's scowling porter son Sylvester (Tony Award honoree Cleavant Derricks) appears unexpectedly, throwing three black male generations into conflict.

And the heavy hand of contrivance is applied as a ragged white stowaway, Lutie (Emily Chisholm), turns up, and a sadistic white conductor (Richard Ziman) stews in resentment over the strides made by "coloreds."

In a chill-inducing, ensemble rendition of "Trouble in Mind," historical and personal angst are distilled into a classic blues.

When "Pullman Porter Blues" swaps music and wit for melodrama and polemics, immediacy shrivels into sermonizing. (And that's even without the issue of rape flaring up.)

It is as if West doesn't trust her initial premise of black male kinsmen caught between past, present and future.

Or she's determined to cram several plays' worth of sorrows and dilemmas into 2 ½ hours.

We learn most about these characters in song, and from a furtive glance, a grimace of disgust, a small act of kindness, courage or cruelty. West and Peterson seed "Pullman Porter Blues" with such fertile moments, but subtlety is in too short supply overall.

Captivating throughout are Marshall's wise, spry Monroe, whose servile behavior toward whites has been a matter of survival, and Sister Juba. Though more of a 1920s archetype, Juba brims with sass and hurt in a bravura turn by diesel strength singer-actor Butler, resplendent in Constanza Romero's brazen costumes.

More nebulous, despite good work by Derricks and Chisholm, are folksy Lutie (who seems to have hopped on from a different train play), and mercurial Sylvester. And it's hard to buy the naiveté of Miller's wide-eyed Cephas chucking college to tend to cranky passengers.

The cargo of sorrows and struggles packed into "Pullman Porter Blues" is no doubt as authentic as the tangy music. But there isn't enough room for them all on this train, if it truly is bound for glory.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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