The Color Purple

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater

The Color Purple was written in 1982 by Alice Walker, as a novel. In 1985, it won accolades and awards as a Steven Spielberg directed film. In 2005, with the likes of Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey as producers, and a script adaptation by Marsha Norman – along with music and lyrics created by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray –The Color Purple made its debut as a musical at New York’s storied Broadway Theatre.

Purple ran for nearly a thousand performances on The Great White Way, earning eleven Tony nominations before becoming a mainstay of musical theater tours across the nation, and even around the world.

Now So Cal audiences have the ripe opportunity to witness The Color Purple incarnated in a nearly perfect production in the intimate Hollywood venue known as the Celebration Theatre. Under Michael Matthew’s vibrant direction and with Janet Roston’s illustrative choreography – underscored by Gregory Nabours’ marvelously rhythmic musical direction (of a feisty five-piece orchestra – this Color Purple is a rousing reinvention, not only of the previous big auditorium productions, but also of the cinematic and literary treatments of the story.

The epic plot unfolds over nearly a half century of the 1900s – from 1909 to 1949. In it we follow the tribulations, revelations, and eventual evolution of Celie (a magnificently mournful Cesili Williams), an abused 14 year-old when the story starts, who is given away in marriage by her cruel father (Corey Jones, outstanding in several roles) to the even meaner Mister (a towering Michael A. Shepperd). To sweeten the exchange, Celie’s “Pa” goes so far as to add a cow to Mister’s bargain debasement deal.

There’s tension from the beginning, however, because Mister’s attention first goes to Celie’s little sister, Nettie (Kelly M. Jenrette in a dimpled-cheek, open-hearted portrayal). But, according to Pa, Nettie’s too young for marriage. Years and continents separate the two siblings, as Celie suffers the temper and torment of the miserly Mister, while Nettie, after being assaulted by Mister herself, sails on to missionary work in tribal Africa.

Meanwhile, Mister’s long-lived love affair with Memphis chanteuse, Shug Avery (sexy songstress Latoya London) is revived when Shug arrives at Mister’s Georgia home. It’s Shug who gives a letter from Nettie to Celie. This confirms for Celie that Nettie is alive. Eventually Celie finds several missives from Nettie, all of which have been hidden from her by Mister.

Moreover, Mister’s oldest son, Harpo (sturdy Terrance Spencer, who performs as several characters), has fallen hard- in-love with the iron-willed and pugnacious Sofia (a vocally impressive Constance Jewell Lopez). Sofia, along with the uninhibited Shug, is one the few females bold enough to stand up to the engrained patriarchal codes of the era. Both of these characters serve as role-models and inspirations for Celie’s nascent self discovery and liberation, including the emancipation of her authentic sexual orientation.

The Color Purple is a sprawling narrative set to a score that carries the torrid tale forward, while punctuating the rise-above-it themes of the show, both in terms of musicality and emotionality. Indeed, plot-points are emphasized by pivotal song and dance numbers. For instance, "Our Prayer" (performed by Nettie, Celie and Mister); Shug Avery Comin’ to Town (brought to sight and sound by Mister, Celie and Company); and the title song, "The Color Purple" (sung by Shug, and reprised as the finale by Celie, Nettie, and Company) are each examples of how the music easily merges with the movement of the story, serving to illuminate as well as invigorate the complex proceedings.

In two hours and forty-five minutes we are given over a dozen-and-a-half musical routines delivered by seventeen well-pitched performers, each in top artistic form. Although the cozy theater space can at times barely contain the starburst energy and excitement of this vivid presentation of Purple, the power exhibited here is nothing short of astonishing.

Kudos, too, to the team of technical artist and craftspeople who, through their exquisite design capabilities, create an extraordinary degree of verisimilitude in the show. Stephen Gifford’s scenic design is inventive and imaginatively bridges time and space in a singularly theatrical fashion. Also, Naila Aladdin Sander’s costuming lends authenticity to the periods and places represented.

Add to these production values Cricket S. Myers’ dimensional soundscape – along with Michael Iran Leon’s wig and make-up work – and it’s clear that The Color Purple is an American musical bound, in time, to take its place alongside such stage classics as Showboat and the more operatic Porgy and Bess.

The Color Purple continues at the Celebration Theatre – 7051B Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood – through May 26. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations, dial (323) 957 – 1884. For online ticketing and further information, visit