BWW Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at Theater West End Makes Up for the National Tour Skipping Orlando

BWW Review: THE COLOR PURPLE at Theater West End Makes Up for the National Tour Skipping Orlando

The first time I saw THE COLOR PURPLE, it was during the first national tour, with two big names on the banner: Oprah Winfrey (as producer) and AMERICAN IDOL's LaToya London.

The second time was on Broadway, where I sat front and center in the Bernard B. Jacobs theatre, with Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo performing so close to me I could have made conversation. Their version - the show's first revival - was pared down and refined, and the experience was nothing short of a glory.

The third was this Thursday night, in a tiny theater in the tiny town of Sanford on the distant outskirts of Orlando.

The brand-new Theater West End, tucked between some trendier-than-I-knew-Sanford-is restaurants and a more-like-what-I-thought-Sanford-was biker bar, had opened its doors for the first time not two weeks prior.

Happily, its debut is with THE COLOR PURPLE, one of my favorite musicals, based on my hands-down favorite film ever... just in time for my new gig as a Contributing Editor here at BroadwayWorld.com.

Naturally, I had to be there, but my experience of seeing Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony-winning superstars in the lead roles was coming with me.

Jennifer Hudson is a hard act to follow.

I'd also brought with me a friend who was new to THE COLOR PURPLE across the board. Could a small upstart stage on the far end of I-4 really give him the inaugural experience he deserved? (Mere days earlier, I had introduced some good friends to my beloved MURDER, SHE WROTE and chosen a terrible episode... was I about to the make the same mistake again?)

But then I heard a big voice belt, "IT'S SUNDAY!" and snapped to attention like it was time to get up and get to church.

It was.

With that crack of thunder, three tell-it-like-it-is church ladies led their ensemble to the stage in an opening number so exuberant and vocally formidable that audience members' hands went up in the air on their own accord. These singers salute Sunday morning like they're the Genie and it's Prince Ali. If this is how most people woke up for Sunday service, churches could start selling tickets.

Those aforementioned ladies of church come by way of Tonya Phillips Staples, Yara Williams, and Shonda Thurman, three actresses whose every return to the stage was met by audibly giddy anticipation. Theirs is a Greek chorus of gossip, the kind who can turn "Who the daddy?" into a refrain while striking facial expressions molded out of 24-karat comedy gold. They're far from the lead roles, but they're immensely important to the show, and these three women knocked them out of the park.

Ricky D. Melvern joins them as the Preacher, dropping his voice low and mandating "a joyful noise" from the congregants. By the time he's done and nearly the whole cast has made its way to the stage, it was exceedingly clear to me that my friend was going to get the PURPLE primer I'd hoped for.

THE COLOR PURPLE is the life story of Celie, an African-American woman who struggles to find self-worth in the face of poverty, incest, physical abuse, racism, and rape, among myriad other injustices. Her plight is anchored in a cruel separation from her sister, Nettie, the only person who loves her - at least until she crosses path with two women the likes of which she's never known: no-nonsense Sophia and the lascivious Shug Avery.

It is heavy but uplifting, a meditation on the beauties and burdens of life. Somehow, it's also frequently funny. Based on the Alice Walker novel of the same name, THE COLOR PURPLE has a lot to say - about women, about men, about race, about sexuality, and about God. It comes to conclusions. They're open to interpretation, but they're nevertheless profound. You can't come away unchallenged. And for that reason, you have to see it in some form.

At Theater West End, Amitria Fanae plays Celie with the timidity required of her at first, and later, with self-assuredness, wisdom, and power. She was clearly the right choice in the cast for this role, and her voice gives the iconic 11 o'clock number, "I'm Here," everything it needs.

The book refers to Celie's sister as "sweet Nettie," and Felichia Chivaughn (also the show's co-director) lives up to the compliment, earnest and lovable. She sings beautifully too.

Anyone who's seen the movie, meanwhile, is eager for Sofia's arrival. Oprah Winfrey's blazingly dramatic monologue is forever etched in cinematic memory. On stage, though, the character is given the duty of comic relief, not to mention one of the most rousing songs, "Hell No!" Fortunately, the West End was able to find Melissa Vasquez, who previously opened FESTIVAL OF THE LION KING in Hong Kong, and she brings the delicious, fist-balled gusto and gumption Sofia calls for.

I mentioned earlier that Jennifer Hudson is a tough act to follow. But Kellie Rhianne (familiar as a lead in Walt Disney World's FESTIVAL OF THE LION KING and Universal Orlando's CELESTINA WARBECK AND THE BANSHEES) didn't have any trouble at all.

By the time she shows up late into Act I, we've spent a good 45 minutes hearing what a legendary "ho" this character is, crowning with "Shug Avery Comin' to Town," a churchy kind of "Something Wicked This Way Comes." But Rhianne's performance reveals there's so much more to Shug than that - and to any of the women who have historically been dismissed as hos.

Despite having seen Margaret Avery's film performance more than fifty times, I still felt I got new insight into Shug through Rhianne, who inhabits her character with an especially human understanding. Her voice is big enough to bring the house down in "What About Love?" and then build a juke joint out of the rubble in "Push Da Button," an unlikely ode to the clitoris that finds the cast standing on chairs and the audience wishing they could climb up on theirs too.

While THE COLOR PURPLE is its female leads' show, I can't close without mentioning Danté J.L. Murray, whose Mister is probably the overall best performance of that character I've seen on a stage. For that matter, every last member of this cast makes an impression, from Terrence Jamison (Harpo) and Domino Thomas (Buster) to Michael Morman (Pa), the ensemble's Christopher Baker, and everyone in between. Sarah Huff merits special mention for her ability to steer the aptly named Squeak away from cartoon territory and sing out despite her eponymous affect.

Imagine: there is this much talent and sound filling a tiny little space just north of Orlando, and most people don't even know about it. (Well, enough do, I suppose, given that they've extended their run and already sold out every night.)

Mind you, Theater West End has some work to do, namely on the issue of sound design. There's a lot of white noise to overcome in such a small space, and the microphones didn't always deliver. Too many lines went muffled. Fortunately, the cast generated so much goodwill from the audience that I genuinely believe no one minded too much. Besides, a new theater is entitled to its kinks. My hope, though, is for these actors' talent to come through without technological compromise.

But hey, at least co-director/purveyor Derek Critzer brought in live musicians, and they sounded great. And the crew clearly put a lot of work into replicating the Broadway revival's set design too, wall-mounted chairs and all.

I'm two reviews into my stint at BroadwayWorld.com, and I've come away from both shows utterly impressed. (Incidentally, I ran into GYPSY's Andrea Canny in the COLOR PURPLE crowd, a reminder of how much Central Florida's talent pool benefits from the theme park corridor, and of how supportive a theatre community it has.)

THE COLOR PURPLE is a crimson gem of a show, and it's a big opening statement for the Theater West End. These songs and singing voices are foils for anyone who doesn't believe that humans have souls. Unfortunately, unless they happen to extend their run a second time or stage a revival, the tickets are all gone. Performances are scheduled through Sunday, September 30, 2018.

To purchase tickets to other upcoming Theater West End shows (which include THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, WEST SIDE STORY, and GHOST, among others), visit its website or call 407-548-6285.


What did you think of THE COLOR PURPLE at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photo Credit: Theater West End

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