BWW Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at Actor's Express
The production of The Color Purple that opened at Actor's Express over the weekend is a strong, spirited, stripped-down production that aims straight at the heart of Alice Walker's beloved story. Here, the aesthetic improvements to the stuffy and overcooked original 2005 Broadway production are inspired by John Doyle's recent acclaimed, minimalist revival on Broadway, and in the hands of a talented ensemble and a luminous Latrice Pace in the role of Celie, this musical becomes exactly what it should be: a heartfelt portrait of the resilience of the human heart.
The epic tale centers around Celie, a young girl who is forced by her abusive father to marry a cruel man, Mister, who, in addition to treating Celie like chattel, separates her from her beloved sister, Nettie. But when Shug Avery, Mister's longtime mistress, comes to town, Celie begins a long and perilous journey that culminates in her recognition of her own worth.
Freddie Ashley, Artistic Director at Actor's Express, in his notes on the show, calls Latrice Pace "incandescent" in the role of Celie. That's pretty lofty praise. And it's totally earned. Pace brings Celie to life in a way that makes us care about her journey and in a way that makes the audience, at least during the show that I attended, pepper the space with cheers of affirmation and lusty "Amen"s, not to mention mid-show ovations. Pace has a voice that perfectly complements the lush, bluesy-gospel score. And she is a singing actor, so every internalized nuance of her actor's journey is present in her sensitive portrayal of Celie.
Most of the other principal actors have great outings, also. Jeanette Illidge is likable and convincing in the role of Nettie. Kayce Grogan-Wallace plays Sophia wonderfully, and her impeccable ear for comedy delivers up lots of laughs. Kevin Harry, playing Mister, give a sturdy performance and ably showcases the dynamism of Mister's character.
The ensemble is also owed much credit for the success of the production. Their contributions to the musical success of the show are significant. And their infectious energy informs the energy of the whole show, making this a fun show to watch.
John Doyle's 2015 Broadway production had a few missed notes. One of them was his scenic design which featured a wall of hanging chairs... tons of hanging chairs ...some of which were pulled down at intervals to become shovels, weapons, and lots of other things. While Doyle's stripped down, minimalist staging was effective, the chairs were not. They were, at best, distracting. At worst, stupid. David Kote, the director of this production, tips a hat to the chairs of Broadway with walls of chairs that flank the sides of the stage, but Kote doesn't fall into the trap that Doyle does. First, he's reconsidered how many chairs to hang. He comes in at under 10. And he doesn't, for the most part, overuse them, certainly not enough that they become a serious distraction.
Having seen Doyle's production of The Color Purple twice on the Great White Way, I can say without reservation that Actor's Express's offering is just as satisfying. When word spreads about this heavenly production, it's going to sell out, so get your tickets soon.
The Color Purple runs through July 29 at Actor's Express.
For tickets and info, https://www.actors-express.com/.