BWW Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at Connecticut Theatre Company
There is something glorious taking place at the Repertory Theatre in New Britain, Connecticut. The Connecticut Theatre Company is staging the very first community theater production of THE COLOR PURPLE, the hit Broadway musical with book by Marsha Norman and Music & Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Readers familiar with the beloved musical very likely may have the same initial reaction as this reviewer had - "A community theater production of THE COLOR PURPLE? Not sure how good that can be." Well, let me go on the record to say that this production by the Connecticut Theatre Company is absolutely breathtaking and does justice to every note, every scene and every heart-wrenching and beautifully written song in the musical. It is fresh and simple, and every bit as moving and life affirming as the original Broadway production (and its recent revival.)
THE COLOR PURPLE, if you haven't read the original Alice Walker book, seen the critically acclaimed film, or taken in one of the recent Broadway productions, centers around Celie, a poor, uneducated African-American girl growing up in the south during the early part of the 20th century. The story begins with a 14-year-old Celie (Zani N. Scott) who is pregnant for the second time, a result of being raped by her father (Robert J. Williams). Her children are taken away as soon as they are born leaving Celie to mourn the loss along with her younger sister Nettie (Tanairy Barton). Soon, a neighbor, the rough and rugged Mister (Oliver J. Lester) makes his interest in marrying Nettie known to her father who insists, instead, that Mister marry Celie so she can take care of his house and his children. Celie begins her life in Mister's house enduring physical and emotional abuse and losing many of the remaining joys in her life, including her sister Nettie who runs off to a fate unknown to her. As time passes other characters enter Celie's life including the brash and bold Sofia (Michelle Marie Clay) who marries Mister's son Harpo (Cecil Carter). But it is the arrival of the glamourous blues and jazz singer Shug Avery (Samantha Bass) that truly changes Celie's life forever. Shug, who is the off and on lover of Mister, teaches Celie about life, beauty, and self-respect and gives Celie her first taste of true love. Life goes on for Celie and through startling revelations and a growing strength in herself and her own worth, she becomes the woman she was destined to be, despite the hardships and obstacles thrown at her. And in the end, Celie learns the beauty that life has to offer and the overwhelming power of loving yourself for who you are.
In terms of the performances, the entire cast is uniquely strong in their own way. The ensemble operates together like a well-oiled machine and the group numbers soar with a power and intensity that is amplified by the intimate space. Everyone is so good it is hard to call out every one, but here but a few worth noting - Michelle Marie Clay's Sofia is bold, brash and brilliant as she belts and bellows each of her signature songs. From a comedic standpoint she is the highlight of the evening, prompting raucous laughter from the audience in many of her scenes. As her husband, Harpo, Cecil Carter is the perfect mix of tenuous and determined. Mr. Carter also delivers his songs with a strong and skilled voice. As his father (and Celie's husband), Mister, Oliver J. Lester plays the villain quite well. He is mean and gruff and shows off his own powerful singing voice during his moving "Mister's Song" in the second act. Stand outs from the ensemble including the three "church ladies" who operate as a greek chorus Jarene (Minnett Joy Henry), Doris (Candace Jelks), and Darlene (Leondra Smith-West) who deliver tight harmonies and hilarious commentary on the actions of the play.
While the entire cast is strong, what makes THE COLOR PURPLE truly sing are the characters of Shug Avery and, of course, Celie. As Shug Avery, Samantha Bass delivers a layered and fascinating characterization that is part no-nonsense singer and part sensitive and beautiful soul. Ms. Bass is equally comfortable in Shug's high energy numbers ("Push the Button") as she is during the soft and intimate moments with Celie. Her "Too Beautiful For Words" and the title song are mesmerizing and simply beautiful. And that brings me to Celie. I will go on the record to say that Zani N. Scott's performance as Celie is every bit as good (and maybe better) than the actresses that have come before her. She moves effortlessly from young Celie to aged Celie (and everywhere in between) and delivers raw emotion and power in every moment she has on stage. For a 19-year-old to take on a part as complex and important and to not only do it justice, but to take it to new heights, is truly remarkable. Time stops when she delivers the 11th hour, iconic song "I'm Here" and you can absolutely hear a pin drop. The raw emotion and brilliance in that song alone make it worth the cost of admission, hands down. Ms. Scott's bio states that she "wishes to become a big time musical theater actress in the future" and I am here to say, based on what she lays out on stage in this production, that future may be here sooner than she realizes.
As mentioned up front, the Connecticut Theatre Company's production of THE COLOR PURPLE is first-rate on all levels. Director (and company President) Erin Campbell has done a brilliant job bringing together an astonishingly talented cast and constructing this show out of simple but effective elements. The stage (which, by the way, has been recently renovated to include table seating and updated raised seating) is set as a primarily open space with strategically placed screen doors to either side. This allows Ms. Campbell to utilize the full theatre (including in the audience on occasion) to an extremely positive effect. The focus, then, is on these brilliantly portrayed characters and how they bring their story to life in song. Justin Henry's musical direction is also strong, and he helps bring to life this gospel infused score from the very first note. Foster Evans Reese's choreography is energetic and adds additional life to the story. Pat O'Neill's costumes are great (especially the African costumes at the beginning of Act II and, of course, Miss Celie's pants) and Michael J. Bane's technical direction (including the lighting design) sets the right mood and frames the evening appropriately.
Connecticut Theater Company's production of THE COLOR PURPLE is one of those shows that thrills, entertains and touches your soul in a way not many musicals can do. This cast gives every ounce of themselves to deliver a first-rate performance that will have audiences talking for years to come. Believe me - you don't want to miss this one. But with only two more weekends, time is running out. And one final tip - if you go, consider choosing table seating and bring a meal to enjoy before the show. A unique way to enjoy this truly amazing production!