Ladies and gentleman: If ever you see a sleazy snake like Herman Camm slither into the room, make haste to protect all women and children.
By turns vile, violent and yet somehow dangerously seductive to women of the species, Camm is the erotic and demonic epicenter of “Blackberry Daze,” a musical entertainment by Ruth P. Watson and Thomas W. Jones II.
With a rollicking jazz, blues and gospel-stoked score by William Knowles, the show runs at Horizon Theatre through Aug. 27.
The material, a tale of Gothic incestuousness that recalls Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” is based on Atlanta author Watson’s 2012 book, “Blackberry Days of Summer: A Novel.”
It is directed by Jones, a prolific theater artist with deep Atlanta connections. He has staged 13 shows in as many years at this Little Five Points theater.
Having missed a few of Jones’ recent Horizon outings, I can’t comment on the quality or significance of his work-at-large. But it seems to me that he has grown profoundly since I last reviewed him.
Not that Jones, who also choreographs with considerable snap, carries this out alone, by any stretch.
In putting the tale of Herman (TC Carson) and the women whose lives he nearly destroys into musical form, Knowles contributes a fluid musical vocabulary. Set in rural Virginia and the Washington D.C. club circuit of the early 1920s, “Blackberry Daze” salves its dark and troublesome material with the balm of musical comedy.
From the moment musical director S. Renee Clark sits down at the piano, we are immersed in a dazzling musical landscape. Yes, the night sizzles. But the characters are fraught with spiritual and emotional anguish, too.
It’s not spoiling anything to say that old bug-eyed Herman Camm is shot at the top of Act One. “Blackberry Daze” is a whodunit, and the rest of the night makes the case as to why so many people would want Camm dead and why no one really cares when he gets popped off. Yep, he’s that bad.
Just ask Mae Lou (Naomi Lavette), the widow he marries the second the opportunity strikes. She cooks his food, puts a roof over his head and, without meaning to, offers up her daughter Carrie (the lovely Ayana Reed) for him to prey on.
Or ask Pearl (Brittany Inge), the married honky-tonk singer who falls in love with him.
Or the town hoodoo woman (played by Christy Clark, who does a stellar job in this and other supporting roles).
“Blackberry Daze” comes close to being a sung-through, danced-through spectacle. Its energy is unflappable, its performers charismatic, its sound quality top-notch.
On the downside, the story is a bodice-ripper at heart, and one that is a bit too neatly and predictably stitched together at the end. And poor, poor Carrie. Is it possible that this innocent young woman’s mother and lover would turn on her when she’s in such pain?
Christian Magby, who doubles as Pearl’s abusive soldier-husband, Willie, and Carrie’s good-looking young suitor, Simon, is a wonderful performer. But something feels amiss here: I don’t think he or the creative team quite succeeds in differentiating these two roles. Look closely, or you may confuse the two.
Jones, however, makes some masterful choices: from stagecraft utilizing billow fabric (not a new device, but he stretches it) to the way performers sometimes break from their characters to narrate the tale in tiny but powerful snippets, without seeming self-conscious or precious. Nyrobi Moss’ costumes and Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay’s sets are also very well done.
It’s a fine season for theater, and blackberries. And this particular production is rich and ripe for the plucking. It’s as prickly as a crown of thorns and as sweet, in the end, as cobbler. Just beware that viperous serpent under the bush.
8 p.m., Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Saturdays; 5 p.m., Sundays. Through Aug. 27. $25-$35. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave., Atlanta. 404-584-7450, horizontheatre.com
Bottom line: Bowl of trouble, sprinkled with sugar and sass.