Ruth P. Watson’s 2012 novel, “Blackberry Days of Summer,” is now a bluesy new musical called “Blackberry Daze,” and that change of spelling in the title foreshadows more bafflement and confusion than was probably intended. Watson’s semi-mystery, with struggles and triumphs evoking shades of “The Color Purple,” features three women done wrong by the same man — a drunk and a rapist whose eventual murder is a relief all around.
That’s no spoiler. “It’s no wonder so many people wanted him dead,” a character says during the show’s busy opening number.
Watson has adapted the book with director-choreographer Thomas W. Jones II, and a novelistic tone sometimes juts in as the story switches focus. At first the show seems to be about Mae Lou (the tart but likable Roz White), the widow who marries the snakelike Herman Camm (played and sung with slithering menace by TC Carson). Then it seems to be about the lusty nightclub singer Pearl (an earthy Yvette Spears), who’s willing to cheat with Camm while her hot-tempered husband Willie (Duane Richards II) is away fighting World War I.
By the end of Act 1, it’s not clear who “Blackberry Daze” is really focusing on, although Mae Lou’s 15-year-old daughter, Carrie (an appealing Ayana Reed), lays the only claim to an audience’s emotions after she’s left alone with the predatory Camm. Watson and Jones seem to be writing a kaleidoscopic story, following the novel’s shifting perspective. But “Daze” moves too fast and with too much shorthand for the characters to make distinct, meaningful impressions.
The result is that the incidents pile up with the pulpy sensation of a bad bodice-ripper, and not even the songs throw the figures into sharp relief. Pearl is a bawdy nightclub singer, so there’s a lowdown good-time feel to her husky blues. But there’s a lot of that flavor to go around in the songs by William Knowles, who plays the score on an upright piano at the back of the stage alongside guitarist and banjo player David Cole.
The songs, with lyrics by Knowles’s frequent collaborator Jones, are all easy to listen to: Knowles smoothly melds gospel, blues and jazz with a sense of tradition and a contemporary ear. Cole even steps front and center with a National guitar to propel the bouncy second-act opener, “Take It Back.”
That number creates an atmosphere but doesn’t move the story, which happens a lot. With the exception of the traumatized Carrie’s painful hymn “Palm of God,” the tunes provide more of a feeling for the era than crystallized images of its people and their dilemmas.
The dramatic storytelling is still sorting itself out, too. It’s awkward to have Richards playing both the thuggish Willie and the nice young ballplayer Simon, who courts Carrie. (Richards seems more comfortable in the sweeter role.) And switching from acting out the events to having characters narrate their own actions at critical moments, as if suddenly they’re reading from the novel, makes it seem like Watson and Jones haven’t quite decided on the best strategy for their show.
An entertaining action sequence at the end of the first act brings comic relief as projections on the back of the set bounce up and down to simulate a frenzied carriage ride. But even that is a puzzlement: Is the musical, which breathlessly stacks seductions and abuses and threats and scandalous births, briefly sending itself up? Maybe there really is a nifty musical lurking inside Watson’s novel. But in this first incarnation, “Daze” is a blur.
Blackberry Daze by Ruth P. Watson and Thomas W. Jones II, music by William Knowles. Directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II. Set, Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan; lights, Alexander Keen; costumes, Sigridur Johannesdottir; sound design, Gordon Nimmo-Smith; projection design, Robbie Hayes. With Duyen Washington, Nia Harris and Rayshun LaMarr. About two hours. Through Oct. 9 At MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Tickets $55-$60. Call 703-548-9044 or visit boxofficetickets.com