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Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'

Clearly, One of the Best in the Company's First 39 Seasons

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
Olivia White and the men of the ensembleof Roxy Regional Theatre's
The Color Purple.
- photos by Donald Groves

With all the emotional power and dramatic possibilities first uncovered in Alice Walker's beloved and iconic 1982 novel - can you believe it's been 40 years? - and capitalizing on the success of the much-loved 1985 film treatment that gave Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey their first screen roles, The Color Purple's transformation into a musical for the stage breathed new life and vibrancy into the story, while providing an entré for new legions of fans eager to embrace the colorful characters and their vivid stories that flowed from Walker's pen.

Having read the book within days of its first publication, I was totally and utterly captivated by the characters created by Walker and longed for the day when they would come to life on the screen of the local movie house. I remember that day vividly - in the same way that I recall important and newsworthy events in life, such as the Kennedy assassination, the landing on the moon, the Challenger tragedy - so clearly as if it were yesterday, even if it was on December 18, 1985. On that day, when Stephen Spielberg's The Color Purple had its first showing at Nashville's Belcourt Theatre, I was so caught up in the tale, so overcome by the emotion of it all, that I sobbed loudly and unashamedly as the story played out in front of me. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by the emotions of the experience that I feared I was disturbing those around me in the darkened theater, but they were all responding just as I was, truth be told.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
Olivia White as Miss Celie

And as I walked to the parking lot after the film ended, I was still crying so hard that two kind and lovely women who had been in the theater with me, inquired about my state of mind and if I was sure I could drive. Since then, if the movie is shown on TV or if I happen to watch on a smaller hand-held screen, my response is still the same: Whenever Celie and Nettie are reunited toward the end, I absolutely lose it. Furthermore, I have never served a glass of lemonade in the past 40 years, that I didn't say "I put some Shug Avery pee in it."

Why do I tell you all these potentially embarrassing details about myself? Well, I'm sharing with you what I consider to be my bona fides as a devoted fan of The Color Purple for the last 40 years -- someone who, coincidentally, has also been reviewing live theatrical productions at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre for at least 32 years - so that perhaps you will ascribe greater credibility and critical weight to the following statement:

The production of The Color Purple, now onstage at the Roxy, is without doubt the most emphatically, beautifully and electrifyingly sung musical I've seen at the historic theatre on the corner of First and Franklin in downtown Clarksville over the past three decades. Directed with confidence by Broadway veteran/Belmont University alumnus/Austin Peay State University professor Deonte Warren, with the spirited choreography of Ebone Amos and one of the finest, most talented casts ever to grace the stage, The Color Purple clearly ranks as one of the best shows in the company's 39-season history (number 40 gets under way next month).

Amos' eye-catching choreography brings even more vitality and excitement to the stage, perfectly capturing the show's spirit and showcasing the talent of her cast to perfection.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
The Church Ladies: La'Nanda Chance, Sabrina Reed
and Alexandra West

Led by a breathtaking performance by Olivia White (she is nothing short of stunning) in the central role of Celie - with strong support from Sierra Davis as Nettie, Ja'Naye Flanagan as Squeak, Laiya Parker as Sofia and Candace Haynes as Shug Avery - Warren's estimable ensemble of actors deliver the goods with an ideal pace that ensures an eminently watchable performance from start to finish.

And while we're on the subject of performances, it should be noted that La'Nanda Chance as Darlene, Sabrina Reed as Doris and Alexandra West as Jarene (otherwise known as "the church ladies"), who provide the perspective of a Greek chorus of sorts, have the voices of angels. It's a wonder the Roxy Theatre remains standing after each performance, given the vocal power of this extremely gifted cast, which includes an impressive male contingent, as well.

Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother) has written the musical's book that is invested with her own dramatic sensibilities, while remaining ever-faithful to Walker's book and abiding by the inherent storytelling possibilities to be found in those pages. She retains all the dramatic import of the story, while excising some of the book's more horrific scenes - Celie's childhood rape, for example - occur offstage and are dealt with in exposition rather than at center stage, allowing for a more fluid and seamless form of storytelling for the musical. You don't miss the darker moments from the book or film, yet you remain keenly aware of the brutality of Celie's life and the lives of everyone around her, for the most part.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
The women of the ensemble perform "Miss Celie's Pants"

With a music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the tuneful score run the gamut from blues, jazz and gospel to the expected and respected showtunes expected in a top-flight musical offering. The score echoes the time in which the play is set - from the early 1900s to the late 1940s, with Celie aging from 14 to 50 along the way - capturing the tone and feel that give a historic perspective to the piece while honoring the uniquely American idiom of musical theater. From a rousing opening sequence filled with an evangelistic fervor to the evocative music for Act Two's opening "Africa" scenes, from "Push Da Button" that sounds like a blues standard to "Brown Betty," the musical score serves as a tribute to African-American music, while "Shug Avery is Coming to Town" and "Miss Celie's Pants" are redolent of the best of musical theater.

"I'm Here," performed by Olivia White, is heartrendingly powerful as she shows us the truth of Celie's life experiences, while both "What About Love?" and "The Color Purple" are tender, haunting love songs that have a timeless appeal that fill your heart for time to come.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
Jermaine L. Wilson as "Mister"

The powerhouse performances of Warren's cast are noteworthy and consistent across the board, with White's portrayal of Celie taking her audience on a 40-year journey that allows the people in Walker's story to learn the true lessons of life and love. The women in The Color Purple are given the best roles, both in terms of sympathetic portrayal by the show's creators and the talented actresses of this cast.

White's performance is ideally modulated throughout, showing us a meek and mild Celie as a young girl, who eventually comes into her own as an experienced, world-weary woman who has finally felt the impact of romantic love. Her scenes with Candace Haynes' Shug Avery are warm and authentic and the chemistry of the two women fills the theater every moment they interact.

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 mitigate with more equitable depictions of the male characters' gradual transformations), Jermaine L. Pearson is commanding as the predatory and mean "Mister," which makes his ultimate transformation all the more powerful. Kenneth L. Waters Jr. is charming and funny as Harpo and his onstage relationship with Laiya Parker's Sofia is genuinely endearing. David Ridley is well-cast as Ol' Mister and he delivers a searing portrait as the abusive Pa.

Review: Roxy Regional Theatre's THE COLOR PURPLE is 'Emphatically, Beautifully, Electrifyingly Sung'
Candace Haynes and Olivia White

The production's design aesthetic, particularly the scenic concept by Ryan Bowie and the scenic design by Emily Rourke, provides a perfect and versatile backdrop for the play's action, while Noel Rennerfeldt's lighting design provides an atmospheric illumination for the show. Unfortunately, the production's sound design is rather muddled (particularly during Act One of the performance reviewed), making it difficult to hear lyrics and dialogue clearly (but I've seen the show so often I was able to fill in the gaps myself, but I worry about other patrons), and the costume design seems ill-conceived, with no sense of the time period - save for the "Africa" sequence, for which the costumes were beautiful - and instead seemed an ill-fated attempt to clothe characters in modern-day fashions that proved incongruent.

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. Directed by Deonte Warren. Choreographed by Ebone Amos. Musical direction by Tyler Saudners. Stage managed by David Graham. Presented by the Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Through Saturday, August 20. For details, go to www.roxyregionaltheatre.org. For tickets, call (931) 645-7699.

photos by Donald Groves




From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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