BWW Reviews: A Heartbreaking Epic is Speakeasy Stage Company's THE COLOR PURPLE
Sometimes you need a good cry. Today, which I spent moving back into the city in the pouring rain, just happened to be one of those days. Luckily for me, I had tickets to Speakeasy Stage Company's production of The Color Purple, so I knew my chances were pretty high of getting my cry out.
Based on the Alice Walker novel of the same name, The Color Purple spans over thirty years, following a young African-American woman named Celie and her struggles with gender roles, violence, accepting love, and exploring her relationship with God. At the start of the play, she is fourteen years old, a victim of incestuous rape, and torn away from her sister, the only source of joy in her life. By the end of the piece, over thirty years have passed, and Celie has completed an arch that is both devastating and beautiful to witness.
Walking into the theatre, I was immediately overwhelmed with the vastness and natural beauty of the stage. Designed by Jenna McFarland Lord, the entire set consisted simply of a grand and realistic tree, with roots spreading across the stage and large branches reaching to the sky. I am a big fan of piece sets to which the stage action adapts and the tree was effortlessly incorporated into the storyline, becoming the house or the juke joint, providing places to sit and play. It was visually appealing and appropriate to the plot, but also served metaphorically. My one issue with the scenic design is that the sheer mass of the tree often disrupted sight lines. Every once in awhile an actor would be singing and I could not see them at all (and I was sitting fourth row center, so my placement in the theatre had little to do with it). But in general, the tree, along with colorful and rich lights by Karen Perlow and Erik Fox, were all very earthy and raw, while still maintaining a lovely warmth.
Irrefutably, the most prominent strength of the show (of which there were many) was the vocal quality of the performers, particularly when singing as an ensemble. This music was mostly gospel based and it was all deep and sultry, urging you to dance. The harmonies are written brilliantly and were executed to perfection, presenting the perfect blend of voices. The solos were killer, of course, but I did prefer the group numbers. "Brown Betty", sung by the men of the show, and "Miss Celie's Pants", sung by the women, were stand outs, with the most amazing harmonies and mix of soulful voices. Carolyn Saxon, Taylor Washington, and Anich D'Jae (my personal favorite) made up a sassy trio, commenting on the action as a Greek chorus of sorts, and not only were hilarious, but sounded fantastic. I could listen to this ensemble sing anything at all and I know I would be satisfied.
That being said, there were some really phenomenal solo performances too. A standout for me was Crystin Gilmore as Shug Avery who was not only bold and fearless, but stunningly beautiful, both visually and vocally. "Too Beautiful for Words" was small, sweet, and intimate, while "Push Da Button" was loud, hot, and wild. She was perfect for the role, as she demanded the attention of the stage. I also quite enjoyed the relationship between Harpo, played by Jared Dixon, and Sofia, played by Valerie Houston, which was the perfect amount of sass and true affection. They were comedic relief for sure, but were also so true and honest that you rooted for them throughout.
This is a brilliant production of this show. It is not the easiest story to tell in that it spans multiple generations and sends the characters through a maelstrom of hurt, violence, and struggle. Director Paul Daigneault did not overcomplicate it, letting the music and lyrics speak for themselves. He trusted the audience to follow along with the aging of the characters, rather than trying to exaggerate it physically or visually, and I found that to be a very strong choice. And Lovely Hoffman, who played Celie, was the perfect woman to illustrate this broken character's transformation. At the start, I wasn't completely sure of Celie, but as she grew up and learned who she was, I found myself becoming more and more invested in this woman. Once she found love, she found strength and the pure emotion delivered throughout (especially when dealing with the love she feels for Shug and for her sister) was heartbreaking. This is not an easy part to play, but Hoffman did it beautifully.
I knew I was going to cry as soon as I walked in the theatre and I was not disappointed. In the final moments of the show, with the emotional reunion and the celebratory harmonies of the last song, I found myself sobbing in my seat. This is an emotional one. And I'm so very glad I got to see it.