WASHINGTON, D.C – The Color Purple is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre through Aug. 26 and, despite director John Doyle’s much scaled down and minimalist set and production, still shines with a superb cast that delivers dynamic and emotional performances.
Based on Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, and Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film, the musical, backed by Oprah Winfrey, ran on Broadway from 2005-2008. Doyle’s Tony-Award winning revival was mounted in December 2015, and its national tour features 17 cast members who focus mainly on the musical score, written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
Still, the musical’s story about an African-American community in rural Georgia in the early 20th century will keep audience goers thoroughly engaged, particularly with cast members who vividly bring to life the theme of surviving against all odds.
At the core of the story are the issues of oppressive racism and the abusive treatment of women. The plays follows one character, Celie, from age 14 to her mid-50’s, noting the heartaches and triumphs that she endures along the way.
The play opens with our introduction to Celie, who is raped by an abusive stepfather who impregnates her with two children that he forces her to give away. When she is forced to marry an older, similarly abusive man, Mister, who calls her ugly, only uses her body for sex and to raise his out of control children, her suffering is even more prolonged.
Adrianna Hicks plays Celie and is outstanding in the role. Her body stooped and practically screaming unworthiness and victimization. Celie’s only joy is her younger sister Nettie, (played gracefully by N’Jameh Camara), but the two are separated when Nettie moves in with Celie and spurs Mister, who like the sisters’ step-father, has always had an eye on Nettie.
Gavin Gregory brilliantly plays the cruel-hearted Mister who retrieves and hides the letters that Nettie writes weekly to Celie for years, even as he pines for Shug Avery, a no-nonsense blues singer that he wanted to marry early on.
Carla R. Stewart plays Shug and is appropriately sassy, sexy and fiercely independent, one of the two women in the cast who take no crap from men. Known as a loose woman with the nasty woman’s disease, the town’s women are warned to lock up their men when Shug comes to town.
The musical’s other no-nonsense female is Sofia, the role played by Oprah Winfrey in the movie, and Carrie Compere steals every scene that she is in. When Sofia marries Mister’s son Harpo (an impressive Jay Donnell), only to be subjected to abuse by him, she makes it clear that she will not stand for it. With a commanding voice and presence, Compere delivers “Hell No,” one of the four top show stealers in the production with power and conviction.
As Shug, Stewart proves to not only have an affecting power over Mister, but when he moves her, sick and exhausted, into his house with Celie, her spell falls over Celie, as well. The two women form a bond that will last a lifetime, and that will result in Celie’s transformative change from a victim into an assertive, independent woman who even opens her own business.
The musical features over 18 songs that range from gospel to jazz to blues and four other significant numbers bring down the house. Stewart’s performance of “Push da Button,”with its wickedly sexy lyrics is steamy, bawdy and shamelessly wanton, as well as “Any Little Thing,” performed by Compere and Donnell.
Gregory shows a surprising side to Mister when he sings “Celie’s Curse,” as he moans over the bad luck that comes his way. Hicks gets to finally step into full power with her performance of “I’m Here,” a rousing anthem to the transformative power of resilience and survival that she sings after leaving Mister.
The musical’s remaining cast members play a variety of characters, ranging from churchgoers to field hands to juke joint customers and add a wonderful depth to the performance. One, Erica Durham, as Squeak deserves mention for her hilarious portrayal of Harpo’s mistress who gets into an altercation with the fierce Sofia in the comical tune, “Uh Oh!”
A dynamic orchestra, led by Darryl Archibald, rounds out the musical, and the sound in the Eisenhower Theatre was superb. Even after years, The Color Purple’s message of seeing the beauty in everything around us and the love that is possible makes for great theater.
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