The 1973 election of Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s first African-American mayor is merely the backdrop for Pearl Cleage’s What I Learned In Paris, a romantic roundelay Noël Coward could have confectioned, its made-for-each-other exes J.P. and Evie giving Private Lives’ Elliot and Amanda a run for their money, albeit with a good deal more soul.

Following its 2012 World Premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Cleage’s entertaining if overlong comedy now arrives at Burbank’s Colony Theatre with some sparkling performances and an often fascinating look back at the heady changes wrought by the previous two decades’ Civil Rights crusade and the then burgeoning Feminist Movement.

WHAT I LEARNED IN PARIS - 1 Celebrating the soon-to-be mayor’s exciting election night victory are his 50something advisor J.P. Madison (William C. Mitchell), J.P.’s half-his-age secretary wife Ann (Joy Brunson), and campaign workers John Nelson (Shon Fuller) and Lena Jefferson (Karan Kendrick), the scent of change most definitely in the air, particularly with J.P. on the short list for City Attorney.

The would-be C.A.’s ex-wife Eve Madison (L. Scott Caldwell) completes Cleage’s cast of characters, the onetime actress having jumped aboard the first available flight out of L.A. to join in all the Jackson victory festivities. That her arrival might possibly stir up still smoldering romantic embers with J.P. adds spice to Cleage’s already savory mix.

WHAT I LEARNED IN PARIS - 4 If Maynard Jackson’s election signaled the dawning of a new era for African-Americans, women of all races were themselves undergoing their own changes in the early 1970s, in Evie’s case a chrysalis inspired by a stay in the City Of Love (hence the play’s title) that she hopes will transform her into Atlanta’s “Hostess With The Mostess” and the salon she plans to create into Atlanta’s innest in-spot.

As for Evie’s ex, while J.P. might well be the front-runner for City Attorney, there’s still one slight hitch, the matter of a Las Vegas wedding to country girl Ann that might not quite have taken place as they claim, that and the fact that Ann’s romantic interests might just possibly lie elsewhere, though not all that far away if you get my drift.

What I Learned In Paris may not be Pearl Cleage’s best play, its talky, monlog-filled second act coming as somewhat of a downer after a frothier Act One, but the novelist-playwright’s latest is an entertaining addition to the Cleage oeuvre, particularly for those who lived through the ‘70s, sound designer Dave Mickey’s R&B hit-packed soundtrack enhancing the trip down memory lane.

WHAT I LEARNED IN PARIS - 2 Under Saundra McClain’s adept direction, the lovely Brunson, the charming Fuller, the spirited Kendrick, and the dynamic Mitchell all do fine work and Caldwell too is on her way towards making Evie all that she can be, though at the moment the Tony winner’s performance could benefit from a punchier delivery and peppier pace.

Act Two in particular could use more snap, crackle, and pop, and though Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting is as gorgeous as ever, those post-intermission monologs might feel less languorous if more brightly lit.

Still, there is much to enjoy in this latest from the Colony, and should word of its arrival reach surrounding communities not familiar Burbank’s gem of a theater, efforts to broaden an ever more geriatric white subscriber base might actually pay off.

WHAT I LEARNED IN PARIS - 3 Scenic designer Charles Erven’s very ‘70s Atlanta condo where What I Learned In Paris unfolds is a winner, design kudos shared with John M. McElveney’s detailed properties design and set dressing. Hair designer Rhonda O’Neal and scenic artist Orlando de la Paz deserve cheers too. Best of all are costume designer Dianne K. Graebner’s fabulous polyester period outfits, with special snaps to Evie’s attention-grabbing gowns.

Robert T. Kyle is technical director. Zuri Adele is assistant to the director. Leesa Freed is production stage manager.

Maynard Jackson had been Atlanta’s mayor for going on two years when Artistic Director Barbara Beckley starred in the Colony’s very first production, The Sign In Sydney Brustein’s Window, way back in 1975, and while Jackson’s mayorship is now one for the history books, as evidenced by What I Leaned In Paris, the Colony keeps on making its own kind of history out Burbank way.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
September 11, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont

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