Sunday, March 11, 2012

review - The Color Purple

CRITIC'S PICK
The Color Purple
book by Marsha Norman
music & lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
directed by Michael Matthews
Celebration Theatre
through May 22

Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 epistolary novel The Color Purple was filmed in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, and although it had its own brilliant style and introduced the world to Whoopi Goldberg, the movie veered quite a bit away from the novel, leaving holes that the 1985 Broadway musical adaptation filled in. Now onstage at the Celebration Theatre, ingeniously staged by Michael Matthews, this small scale production of Purple is extra-special because Matthews and his cast are not afraid to let their creative juices flow that extra mile and a half, echoing Purple's theme of love has no barriers. Not since Jeff Calhoun's Big River at Deaf West Theatre has an Equity waiver show proven itself superior to the original.

First of all, Matthews' use of every inch of the tiny black box space to tell the story, including aisles and a tiny background stage above the mainstage, is quite an amazement in itself. Take, for example, the opening of Act II, where Celie (Cesili Williams) reads letters from her sister Nettie (Kelly M. Jenrette) who now lives with Celie's two children in Africa. Thanks to the brilliant staging, Janet Roston's exhilarating choreography and Naila Aladdin Sander's vibrant costumes, the stage is never cramped; we witness Africa come to life in what seems a natural fashion, with the 20+ ensemble dancing joyfully in front of us. We are pulled in, and this element of proximity to the stage, the intimacy of the entire exchange is more meaningful and alive. Celie and Shug's (La Toya London) kiss and give and take of true love - which was absent from the film - is thrilling. It doesn't matter how many people populate each scene - two, four, or twenty - what results here is visual splendor that excites the mind and the senses.
The entire ensemble is breathtaking. Williams is so vulnerable and forthright as Celie, that her pain tugs at the heartstrings of anyone she touches. Michael A. Shepperd is marvelous as Mister, whose loneliness has made him obsessively cruel. His later scenes of repentance are heartfelt. London is beautiful, yet cunning as Shug, Constance Jewell Lopez hilarious and appropriately mean-spirited as Sofia, Jenrette a sweet and sympathetic Nettie, Terrance Spencer a resourceful Harpo, among other smaller roles, and Niketa Calame a standout as Squeak. What an ingenious, perfectly cast show under Matthews expert direction!

This is a Color Purple for the books. Love and forgiveness abound; audiences will be entertained and ultimately transfixed.

5 out of 5 stars

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