Nashville Repertory Theatre's Stellar 39th Season Continues With Superb Prooduction of THE COLOR PURPLE

Carli Hardon Leads Talented Ensemble in One Of The Year's Best

By: Apr. 09, 2024
Nashville Repertory Theatre's Stellar 39th Season Continues With Superb Prooduction of THE COLOR PURPLE
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Led by a bravura performance from Carli Hardon, Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of The Color Purple – the musical based on the beloved Alice Walker novel, which features a book by Marsha Norman and a score by Brenda Russell, Allie Willis and Stephen Bray – is yet another extraordinary success from the professional company in the midst of its 39th season. Directed with complete self-assurance and confidence by Reggie Law, with evocative and energetic choreography by Joi Ware and the musical direction of Dion Treece that results in one of the most emphatically sung shows in Nashville Rep history, The Color Purple is a beautiful and moving reimagination of Walker’s novel of faith, despair, horror, beauty, love and redemption.

Perhaps most noteworthy about this particular iteration of the Tony Award-winning musical that was adapted for a 2023 film version, is the continued universality of the story and the showstopping performances of a largely Nashville-based cast, made up of local stage favorites and an impressive cadre of new personalities, all of whom make their characters their own via this stellar production. Law’s gifted cast allow Nashville audiences an opportunity to experience The Color Purple in the most personal way that is only available through the magic of live performance.

Led by the luminous Hardon’s remarkable performance as Celie, the downtrodden young black girl whose struggles rival those of the Biblical 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, audiences are treated to a thoroughly multi-dimensional performance that is at once shattering, uplifting and inspiring. Harden’s musical performance is spectacular, but it is perhaps her acting performance that is most impressive: Watching her evolve as Celie, from the young girl we first meet at the top of the show to the accomplished and supremely confident woman she becomes, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Anytime a beloved book or film is transferred to the stage, the production leaves itself open to oftentimes unending criticism, yet for me at least (someone who fell in love with Walker’s book when it was first published, the 1985 Stephen Spielberg film version, and the musical soon after its 2010 Broadway debut) The Color Purple is just as successful as a musical as it was as either. The music fits perfectly the time frame and the situations that are presented onstage, blending the evangelistic fervor of gospel music with the flowering genres of jazz and blues, with Broadway theatricality at its very best, and presenting the musicality of the cast members at their finest.

With a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Norman (the librettist of The Secret Garden before this), with music and lyrics by RussellWillis and Bray, The Color Purple, the musical, is both loyal to and a less traumatic rendition 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 retains much of the gritty truth apparent 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 Spielberg film – which was just as controversial at the time of its initial release as the musical has been) and, therefore, more uplifting (if you can imagine it – the musical give the character of “Mister” a stronger redemptive journey), 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 zenith 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" combine the best elements of several musical idioms to showcase the showtune at its finest.

With an aesthetically pleasing production design from the production’s creative team, including Joonhee Park (scenic), Nia Safarr Banks (costumes, hair and makeup), Dalton Hamilton (lighting), Mark Zuckerman (sound) and Lauren Yawn (props), The Color Purple is visually compelling and provides a strong setting for the show that, most likely, gives the cast the added stimulus to find the philosophical and emotional center of their characters. The live music accompanying the cast is performed by an equally impressive collection of musicians in conductor Treece’s orchestra.

Ware’s stunning choreography ideally captures the show’s spirit, using a variety of dance styles to interpret the story brought to life through Law's focused direction. Law's attention to detail in helping to develop the characters provides a deeper and richer experience for the audience, whether its members be long-term devotees of the work or newcomers to the theater.

Hardon's stunning lead performance is given ample and laudable support from the rest of the cast, including the beautiful portrayal of Shug Avery by Tamica Nicole, whose performance of "Push Da Button" is worth price of a ticket. Shinnerrie Jackson, cast as Sofia, commands the stage with her confident presence, with pathos underscoring her more dramatic scenes. Maya Antoinette Riley, 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. Raven Buntyn is well-cast as Squeak, the young woman who dares to challenge Sofia to a juke joint catfight.

Among the men in the cast, Nashville theater veteran Elliott Winston Robinson 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. Gerold Oliver is imminently watchable as Harpo, Sofia's beleaguered husband. 

Special notice must be awarded to the trio of actresses who play the show's Greek chorus of sorts - the Church Ladies: Lindsey Kaye Pace, Yolanda Treece and Meggan Utech (whom I had never noticed until Sunday bears a striking resemblance to Vice President Kamala Harris) deliver superb performances that are particularly entertaining and noteworthy. Their vocals are astonishing.

The production’s multi-talented ensemble bring much energy and panache to the show, delighting the audience throughout and delivering a memorable curtain call performance that will leave in a sea of emotions: Justin Marriel Boyd, Jaylan Downes, Lisa Graham, Ashur Hailey, Richard J. Harrison Jr., Lando Hawkins and Katelyn Virgous.

With the wealth of talent onstage and behind the scenes, Nashville Rep’s The Color Purple exemplifies the best of musical theater, telling a richly crafted story that expounds upon its emotional and dramatic themes that are brought so vividly to life.

The Color Purple. Based upon the novel by Alice Walker. Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda RussellAllee Willis and Stephen Bray. Directed by Reggie Law. Choreographed by Joi Ware. Musical direction by Dion Treece. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre, Nashville. Through April 14. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).


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