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BWW Reviews: THE COLOR PURPLE at Tennessee Performing Arts Center

Retaining all the emotional power and dramatic possibilities of Alice Walker's beloved novel - with the storied visual impact of the now-classic film version - The Color Purple is given renewed life and vibrancy in the stunning musical version now onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Featuring the powerhouse performances of an immensely talented cast, it's an inspiring, heartfelt story of love and redemption in which new audiences can revel and rejoice.

Led by the exquisitely voiced Dayna Jarae Dantzler in the pivotal role of Celie, we are taken on a journey of almost 40 years in the lives of Walker's richly drawn characters, to learn the true lessons of life and love. The story is as moving as it has ever been - Walker's novel relates the story of Celie's extraordinary life eloquently and articulately - but the creators of this musical (which earned a whopping 11 Tony Award nominations, winning the top honor for LaChanze's stirring performance as Celie) have re-fashioned the story to make it more palatable for theatre-goers, delivering a version of the story that is easier to follow, while retaining all the epic scope and dramatic possibilities of the original work. Nor is it slavish in its devotion to Stephen Spielberg's fine film version; The Color Purple, "the musical about love," obviously tells the same story, but in a different way, offering instead a re-intepretation of Walker's artfully created story set to music and told vividly onstage.

Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman (who won the Pulitzer for her searing 'night, Mother and the Tony Award as librettist for The Secret Garden) crafts a winning book for The Color Purple, investing it with her own weighty dramatic sensibilities as a playwright, while remaining faithful to Walker's book and abiding by the storytelling possibilities inherent in the work. Remarkably, she is able to keep all the dramatic import of the story while excising some of the book's (and the film's) more horrific scenes - Celie's girlhood rape, for example - occur offstage and are dealt with in exposition rather than onstage, saving the audience from the experience and allowing for a more fluid and more seamless form of storytelling for the musical. Perhaps surprisingly, you don't miss those horrors, yet you remain keenly aware of the injustices and brutality of Celie's life and the lives of those around her.

Don't be misled, however; Norman's book doesn't shy away from the realities created by Walker, instead she re-fashions them to keep the play's action moving along at a good pace while refusing to give short shrift to the story that audiences expect. If anything, Norman re-fashions Celie's story to make it even more inspirational and to present a more balanced view of the period trappings surrounding it.

With lyrics and a musical score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the tunes run the gamut from blues, jazz and gospel to the sheer showtune spectacle expected in a blockbuster Broadway musical. The score perfectly echoes the times in which the tale is told, capturing the tone and feel to give historical perspective to the piece while paying tribute to the uniquely American idiom of musical theatre. From the rousing "Mysterious Ways" to the evocative "African Homeland," from "Push Da Button" (which already sounds like a blues standard) to "Brown Betty," the musical score serves as a tribute to African-American musicians and vocalists, while the very showy "Shug Avery is Coming to Town" and "Miss Celie's Pants" recall the very best of music written expressly for the musical theatre. And "I'm Here," What About Love?" and "The Color Purple" are tender, haunting love songs that will remain in your heart and mind long after you leave the theatre. That these beautifully written songs are so amazingly sung by director Gary Griffin's outstanding cast of actors only helps to increase their heart-stirring impact - and Steven M. Bishop's orchestrations and arrangements are played by an exceptional orchestra under the direction of conductor Joe Ryan Joseph.

This production - a non-union production currently touring the United States - is sumptuously produced, retaining the original Broadway aesthetics of scenic designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Paul Tazewell and lighting designer Brian MacDevitt. On opening night in Nashville, the only problems notice (and they were very minor) were some sound glitches that were quickly corrected by technicians in the booth.

Dantzler's beautiful performance as Celie is clearly the production's best and most intriguing, as she takes her character from 14-years-old to her mid-50s with grace, style, wit and grit. Her musical performance is oustanding, perhaps rendering her dramatic performance all the more moving and astonishing in its range.

The women in The Color Purple are given the best roles, both in terms of sympathetic portrayal by the creative team and the talented actresses of this cast. Dantzler is given able support by audience favorite Pam Trotter, who plays Sofia with the right amount of brashness, bravado and comedy to create a character who is completely sympathetic and accessible. Taprena Augustine, as Shug Avery - the person who teaches Celie her most important lessons about allowing herself to love and to be loved - gives a superbly crafted performance, capturing the duality of Shug's nature (both the romantic and the realist) and singing with heart and soul.

Traci Allen is quite strong and lovely as Celie's beloved sister Nettie and the trio of Kadejah One, Nesha Ward and Virlinda Stanton very nearly steal the show as gossipy Church Ladies who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts to propell the storytelling on its circuitous way. And, finally, Allison Semmes gives a spot-on reading of Squeak that is nothing short of delightful.

Of the men in this cast (and, we must admit, Walker's original work has often been criticized for painting a horrible picture of African-American men - something which this version attempts to mediate with a more equitable depiction of the male characters' gradual transformations), Edward C. Smith gives a laudable performance as Mister, walking a delicate line between human being and monster while retaining that much-needed touch of humanity to hold the audience's interest and to make his ultimate redemption all the more moving. Lee Edward Colston II, as Harpo, plays wonderfully in all his scenes, but it is his scenes with Trotter's Sofia, that resonate most strongly.

The Color Purple always will be a wonderfully told tale of women overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles and triumphing over pain and degradation to rightfully claim their places in society and, ultimately, to emerge victorious from the roles to which they were originally banished. Perhaps in no way could that best be demonstrated than through this stirringly inspirational and relentlessly hopeful musical.

And on a slightly more personal note, I must add that I have loved The Color Purple from the first time I read the book (could it really be almost 30 years ago?) and when I first saw the film version on a Friday afternoon, I sobbed so much through the movie that I was still crying in the theatre parking lot as the sun illuminated me for all the world to see. That said, let me add this: I'm just glad the lights were lower on opening night. The musical still packs an emotional wallop that will leave you drained and maybe even a little embarrassed that your objectivity can be so easily cracked. But you really shouldn't miss the opportunity to see it.

- The Color Purple. Based on the novel by Alice Walker. Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Choreographed by Donald Byrd. Directed by Gary Griffin. Presented at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Through Sunday, March 28. For tickets, call (615) 782-4040 or visit the TPAC website at www.tpac.org.


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