“The Color Purple” isn’t based on one of those stories that lingers for a moment and dies. Hell no! It has survived and surpassed.
Adapted from Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize novel winner to the 1985 film that made Oprah a mainstay and Whoopi Goldberg a love of my life, “The Color Purple” has illuminated and transported audiences for generations now.
The Walton Arts Center performance of the travelling musical is no different for its transportive qualities. The beauty of this musical is that it does not shy away from the original novel’s relationship between Shug Avery and Celie, as the movie distinctly underscores, nor does it avoid the religious overtones that the film tends to downplay. Rather, the Broadway darling scores the distinct notion of these women’s relationship as the meteoric rise that it is — for Celie’s character and ultimately the rest of the cast — and how, through all of their trepidations, there is ultimate redemption in their perseverance, all of which is expressed through soaring song.
Several aspects of the WAC performance is worth the ticket. For one, Pam Trotter’s Sophia is a great send-off of the character, and her vocal strength is what one might expect from such a show and then some. The set is a beauty, with smooth track-run set changes and top-notch lighting.
The musical is built to be a crowd pleaser, juicing gospel stylings mixed with orchestral profundities. However, in terms of soundscape, the show’s opening night left something to be desired. For the sound system that the Walton Art’s Center has at its disposal, the acoustics were off: the lovely choral moments of the show, including the Greek chorus-esque Church ladies, Harpo’s juke dive scenes, and general ensemble numbers, wavered and were even strained by both the actors finding their vocal legs and the sound board’s imbalance, either of which might easily improve in subsequent performances.
Celie’s Dayna Jarae Dantzler has striking moments, however, and several cast members hit all of the right notes, including the church soloist, Kadejah Oné, who opens the show with verve. To the show’s credit, almost all of the female actors serve up a burgeoning performance. Taprena Augustine’s Shug Avery drew a “bravo!” from audience members after her opening number. Yet, the male leads leave much to be desired. Edward C. Smith’s Mister is a far cry from the original Broadway cast’s impressive Kingsley Leggs. Virtually none of the male stars impress, but then, perhaps that is something of the point. The women happily steal the show, with even minor characters, such as the comic Squeak, performed by Allison Semmes, keeping quieter scenes in the big leagues with well-timed laughs and perfectly cued abruption.
This musical cannot be discounted. The eleven Tony awards it won in 2006, when it was produced by Scott Sanders, Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, should tell you that this is an adaptation worth seeing. Even if you believe, as I tend to, that such awards are mostly corporate buy-outs, I assure you that the sociological pertinence of this work bears consideration. A play that portrays a turn of last century African-American culture in all honesty and directness deserves attention for, if nothing else, its relevance to how the African-American community is seen today in light of that history. An all-black cast remains remarkable, despite the prevalence of African-American culture in our society. An honest and unrestrained portrayal, even more so.
For its moments of grandeur and its crucial consideration of love and community in the face of hardship — an all-too-real reality for so many in this day and age — “The Color Purple” is a resonant, profound take on a now-familiar story, one that is brazenly faithful and eminently felt.
The Color Purple is now playing at the Walton Arts Center. Tickets are $39-73, and can be purchased at waltonartscenter.org.