The Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Marsha Norman’s musical version of “The Color Purple,” after Alice Walker’s novel, is a harsh reminder of what life was like in the South in the 1930s. Quite honestly, though, it is a snapshot of the life of many rural and urban women of color at that time. Coming on the heels of the burgeoning of the Me, Too movement and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, it is a salient reminder that the exploitation of power is a constant in many women’s lives.
Operatic in scope, this musical has it all–depths of drama and tragedy, transcendent joy, and magnetic characters. When we first meet Celie (Adrianna Hicks), her body is a question mark–her spine curves in her abject wonderment at the dreadful treatment she receives at the hands of her father, Alphonso (JD Webster), like a question mark. Questioning her very existence, Celie nevertheless persists in her belief that there is something better. Her sister Nettie (N’Jamah Camara) is the light in her life and we see them as the children they are, despite Celie’s already having given birth twice to Alphonso’s children. It is gritty, earthy 1930s realness, folks, and literally in an eyeblink, Celie grows up and is horsetraded by Alphonso into marrying Mister (Gavin Gregory), who is far more interested in Nettie. And that’s where it gets even more real.
I truly enjoyed this musical, from beginning to end. Even if you’re not usually given to tears, you may find yourself “leaking” a bit, so plan ahead. However, the primary relationship that encourages Celie to bloom is the emotional and physical relationship with Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart) and this telling of Walker’s magnificent Pulitzer Prize winning book minimizes this centrally important relationship. This is the one spot in the otherwise brilliant firmament. It was an interesting idea to give Mister his own “Soliloquy,” à la Billy Bigelow’s, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” It’s both “Soliloquy” and Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot,” as he examines his soul in a peregrination of the stage and the mind. The Greek Chorus of Church Ladies (Angela Burchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West) are pure delight, accenting salient moments of the play. Harpo (Jay Donnell) and Sofia (Carrie Compere) have a very complicated relationship in a different way from those around him, and Sofia may be beaten down, but she is never beaten back. There is a moment when Sofia reacts to Celie that is everlastingly delicious and masterfully done. I’m not going to tip you when or what, but you’ll recognize it.
As Celie’s spinal question mark emerges as an exclamation point, Hicks makes us all rejoice in the burgeoning of her being and the blooming of her soul. Most moving is when she and Nettie are reunited at last, their sisterhood shining enough to illuminate the entire room.
now for tickets. Autumn is all about being colorful–why not paint it Purple! Do it now–the show runs just through October 21.