BWW Reviews: Milwaukee Rep's THE COLOR PURPLE Plays Beautiful, Bold and Brilliant
In a revival of Alice Walker's bold novel The Color Purple, the award-winning musical opens The Milwaukee Rep's 2014-2015 theater season reprising the WOW in entertainment that began with Ragtime in their 60th season. Walker's Pulitzer Prize winning 1982 story arrives in a re-adaptation of the 1985 film and 2005 Broadway musical redesigned for the Quadracci Powerhouse stage featuring a superb cast, which after almost three hours, "fills the room like a sweet perfume... restoring a belief in trust and tenderness."
Walker's novel and the subsequent media adaptations continually stir controversy and remain relevant. In 2014, with the recently released Ray Rice video of the football player hitting his wife and then dragging her from an elevator, Walker's fictional story of two African American sisters, Celie and Nettie, strikes a familiar, if unsettling, cord. Celie suffered domestic violence from two men in her life, her father and her husband, Mister, which begins when she was a teenager living in 1914 rural Georgia. After birthing two children who were torn from her arms and given away, Celie was bartered to Mister along with her father's cow, and placed under his commanding whip of abuse.
After Celie's marriage, her sister Nettie had been chased away by the sexual advances of her father and the Mister who preferred the delicate Nettie to the supposed "big, ugly" Celie. As the two sisters lives unfold over four decades, Celie and Nettie transform their bitter circumstances through faith and perseverance into a jubilant celebration of redemption for their families.
Director Mark Clements assembles a Broadway-worthy cast building their resonant, resounding voices and enthralls the audience. A radiant Zonya Love recreates Celie in Milwaukee after performing the same role on Broadway while a women trio resembles the Greek chorus tradition and echoes the thoughts of their Georgia community. Darlene, Doris and Jarene, played by Melody Betts, Vallea E. Woodbury, and Vanessa A. Jones-Dubose respectively, comment through the lyrical humor while circulating through more than 30 vibrant scenes in the musical.
Sofia, Walker's character and songstress played by Bethany Thomas, stands up for her womanhood when she belts out "Hell, No" her signature song, and complements the lithe Christina Acosta Robinson in the Shug Avery role. A gorgeous, rebellious woman and blues, or juke singer, Shug returns to the Georgia town despite the vicious gossip that follows her, where her love for Celie elevates Celie's belief in herself, to share the grace of God inside her.
Actor Nathaniel Stampley allows Celie's husband, Mister, the brutish groom to grow into an eventually good man, while Gilbert L. Bailey II gives his son, Harpo, sensitivity when he rebukes his father, his own wife Sofia and then affectionately relates to his stepmother, the ever dependable Celie. The musical involves a huge cast comprising 30-plus actors where several dual roles contribute to the impressive theatrical quality seen in these exuberant stage performances.
By mixing memorable numbers joyful with blues, jazz and spiritual melodies, Choreographer Amy Hall Garner rumbles the audience with "Brown Betty," "Push Da Button," featuring a provocative Robinson, and "In Miss Celie's Pants." In an incomparable duet, the sensual "Is There Anything I Can Do For You?" sung by Bailey II and Thomas, Harpo and Sofia reflect the equality achieved in their restored marriage. A six piece live orchestra conducted by Music Director Dan Kazemi accompanies the musicians hidden in silhouette behind a soft, draped background curtain.
Scenic Designer Todd Edward Ivins artfully captures four decades in his sets framed by a massive timber arch around the entire stage. A turbulent wood array evoking the rural setting without undue references to poverty, where dignity and resilience reign over these character's tribulations. All carefully reiterated in Alexander B. Tecoma's ever-changing costume designs, cleverly colorful when Celie opens her pants emporium after the evolution of women's clothing resulting from World War II in the 1940's.
All these technical achievemnts carefully create the epic essence to Marsha Norman's book accompanied by music and lyrics composed by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray translated from Walker's novel. How these African American women reinvented their lives, to empower their gender and race, and transform the future. So Walker's 'Color Purple" symbolizes that divinity reigns within the human spirit and nature if an individual chooses to see this hidden grace, grandeur and power, while Walker's story transcends cultures and decades with a purple infinitely as striking today.
Celie, Nettie, Shug and Sofia evolve into realizing the "beautiful" unique human beings they were created to be, respected by men and women for their personal choices. Gratefully, men also transform in this musical, reminding the audience anyone can be capable of personal growth while "it's never too late."
Beautiful transformations observed with certainty and clarity by one woman sitting in the audience on opening night. Upper middle class, well educated and her skin color whiter than white, this mother shed tears. She briefly mentioned her thirty something daughter finally divorced herself from a six year abusive and addictive marriage, taking her young five-year-old daughter with her. At that evening's performance, this mother and her family, "could rise with a hope that sets us all free." Words Walker's four courageous women characters reveal in the musical's finale. In those tears, in that one woman's glow at this transcendent performance, Milwaukee Rep's The Color Purple radiated more contemporary boldness and brilliance than dreamed possible.
The Milwaukee Rep presents Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-Winning The Color Purple in the Quadracci Powerhouse at the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex through November 2. The Rep schedules additional programming and talkbacks through the fall, so for information and tickets, please call: 414.224.9490 or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com