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BWW Reviews: THE COLOR PURPLE National Tour at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall

While critics and fans alike justifiably lament the paucity of female leads in Broadway musicals this season just past, you need look no further than the current tour of The Color Purple for a musical filled to overflowing with noteworthy women characters. The beautiful and moving reimagination of Alice Walker's extraordinary novel of faith, despair, horror, beauty, love and redemption, The Color Purple might best be described as a woman's story, but it is, in every possible way, a human story as universal and as affecting as any work of musical theater ever created.

Earning 11 Tony Award nominations during its run on Broadway, the tour of The Color Purple returns to Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center for the second time, delighting audiences while delivering yet again some of the best singing ever heard in Andrew Jackson Hall. (And, remember, this is Music City USA, where we hear good singing just about every day of the week.) The amazingly gifted cast is led by the luminous Dayna Jarae Dantzler as the iconic Celie, the downtrodden African-American woman whose struggles rival those of Job and who ultimately conquers the forces that subjugate her to achieve a level of self-awareness and grace to which we should all aspire. Giving Nashville audiences (no matter how rude they were on opening night - but more about that later) yet another opportunity to see her multi-dimensional performance, Dantzler displays an impressive acting and vocal range while completely ingratiating herself to her rapt admirers.

Anytime a beloved tome or film is transferred to the stage, the production leaves itself open to dissection and oftentimes unending criticism, yet for me at least, The Color Purple is just as successful as a musical as it was as a book or film. The music fits perfectly the time frame and the situations that are presented onstage, blending the fervor of gospel music with the flowering genres of jazz and the blues, with a soupcon of Broadway theatricality at its very best.

With a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman (the librettist of The Secret Garden before this), with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the musical of The Color Purple is both loyal to - and a fresh take on - Walker's novel, a more palatable serving of the original story. While much of the truly horrific episodes from the book occur offstage and are dealt with through onstage exposition, the musical nonetheless retains enough of the gritty truths evident in the novel to remain faithful to it. And the closing scene in the musical, while more inclusive (perhaps shockingly so to devoted fans of the book and the Steven Spielberg film version - which was just as controversial at the time of its release as the musical has been) and, therefore, more uplifting (if you can imagine it), remains faithful to the spirit of the source material.

Ranging from the show opening gospel number, "Mysterious Ways," which sets the tone for the score that follows, to Celie's anthemic "I'm Here" which is the apotheosis of her journey  - the show's musical score is memorable, emotionally driven and tremendously hummable (something that all-too-often is missing in contemporary musical theater scores). "Brown Betty" recalls the earliest roots of the blues idiom, while "Push Da Button" is theatrical blues at its very best. "Shug Avery is Coming to Town" and "Miss Celie's Pants" combines the best elements of several musical idioms to showcase the showtune at its finest.

Exquisitely designed by some of theater's best and brightest, who include John Lee Beatty (scenic), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Craig Cassidy (sound) and Charles G. LaPointe (hair), The Color Purple is a visually compelling feast, providing a sumptuous setting for the show and, most likely, giving the cast an added push in finding the philosophical and emotional center for their characters. The live music accompanying the cast is performed by an equally impressive collection of musicians under the baton of conductor Nicholas Williams.

Donald Byrd's choreography captures the spirited heart of the show, using a variety of dance styles to interpret the story brought to life through Gary Griffin's focused direction. Griffin's attention to detail in helping to develop the characters provides a deeper and richer experience for the audience, whether its members be longterm devotees of the work or newcomers to the theater.

Dantzler's stunning lead performance is given ample and laudable support from the rest of the cast, including the beautiful and multi-layered portrayal of Shug Avery by Taprena Augustine, whose performance of "Push Da Button" may indeed be worth price of a ticket. Pam Trotter, playing the lovable character of Sofia, commands the stage with her confident presence, with pathos underscoring her more dramatic scenes. Melana L. Lloyd, in the role of Celie's beloved sister Nettie, gives an impressively noble performance, making the journey of a hard-earned lifetime during the show's course. And Allison Semmes is wonderfully cast as Squeak, the young woman who dares to challenge Sofia to a juke joint catfight.

Among the men in the cast, Edward C. Smith is a handsome and strapping - if menacing - Mister, making his eventual comeuppance all the more satisfying and his character's ultimate redemption more deeply felt. Cameron J. Ross is charming and imminently watchable as Harpo, Sofia's beleaguered husband. Mark Hall is disturbingly convincing as Pa, while Christopher Sams takes on the dual roles of Buster and Grady with a certain sense of style that works for both characters.

Special notice should be given of course, to the trio of actresses who play the show's Greek chorus of sorts - the Church Ladies - Nesha Ward, Virlinda Stanton and Deaun Parker deliver superb performances that are equal to the show's other principals, while Kadejah One impresses with her performance as the Church Soloist.

With the wealth of talent onstage and behind the scenes, The Color Purple exemplifies the best of musical theater, telling a richly crafted story and then expanding on its emotional and dramatic themes. But on opening night, the audience in TPAC's Jackson Hall behaved rudely, showing disrespect for the artists onstage and, quite frankly, for Alice Walker and her iconic characters. The man seated two seats to my right sang much of the score while talking back to the characters as if he were watching a drag show at a Sunday evening gay bar tea dance (all while clinking ice in his plastic tumbler). Another woman, seated on the row in front of me and three seats to my left, shouted out "Gross!" when Celie and Shug express their devotion, affection and undying love to each other. Had she never read the book or seen the movie? That's unlikely. But her rude (and proud of it) retort was a vivid reminder of how much further society has to go - and how the story unfolding onstage still rings true for so many people. Combine those ridiculously uncouth incidents with the constant coming-and-going of audience members who couldn't hold their water (perhaps a little bit of Shug Avery pee in their drinks is in order) or had to have another glass of wine and it made Nashville audiences look like unsophisticated rubes. Learn some manners, damn it.

The Color Purple. Based upon the novel by Alice Walker. Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreographed by Donald Byrd. Musical direction by Jasper Grant. Presented by Phoenix Entertainment - Joyful Noisemakers LLC at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through June 26. For details, visit the company website at www.tpac.org; for reservations, call (615) 782-4040.


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