Chicago Theatre Review
The Power of Love Validated in Violet
The Color Purple
With a plot that spans forty years and two continents, Marsha Norman’s (“The Secret Garden”) book, with music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, feels a little bit choppy. So much story and so many characters are packed into this much-honored musical that it’s often difficult keeping track of where we are and how many years have passed between scenes. But, because of a winning, earnest, enthusiastic cast, some exciting choreography and a beautifully played and sung score, this poignant story praising the kinship of girl power and love’s healing quality emerges.
Although this beloved musical, based upon Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, has been previously seen in Chicago on two occasions, Mercury Theatre’s production is a cause for excitement. Directed by the Jeff Award-winning creative team of director L. Walter Stearns, musical director Eugene Dizon and choreographer Brenda Didier (assisted by associates Craig V. Miller and Andrew Waters), this 16-member cast primarily draws from Chicago’s vast pool of talent. Also, unlike the touring productions, Mercury’s production, featuring Oliver Townsend’s full-sounding live orchestra, offers a richer, more intimate experience about the power of faith and love.
For those unfamiliar with Ms. Walker’s novel or Steven Spielberg’s stunning 1985 film version, this is the story of a poor, African-American woman who rises from unspeakable abuse, oppression and poverty to find confidence, self-respect and love. The musical begins with a 14-year-old Celie, once again pregnant with her own father’s child, being sold into a loveless marriage to an older man known only as “Mister.” Torn apart from her younger sister Nettie, the only person who ever loved her, years pass. Celie, whose life has been years of beatings and physical and emotional abuse, makes a friend of Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife-to-be. Celie learns from her that a women needn’t be subservient to anyone, much less her own husband. Later this lesson is reaffirmed when Celie finds friendship and love with Mister’s sexy mistress, Shug. She also discovers, thanks to a sheaf of hidden letters, that Nettie is not only alive but is an African missionary and raising the two children that Celie’s father had given away. Act II continues with Nettie’s life in Africa, as described through her letters. Celie accepts Shug’s offer to leave Mister, joining her at her home in Memphis. Celie later inherits her family estate and eventually opens a shop selling her specially-made women’s pants. After a reconciliation with a much-changed Mister, the musical ends when Celie is finally reunited with both her estranged sister and her two children.
This production nearly jumps off the stage with energy, thanks to an exciting, Grammy-nominated musical score and, especially, Ms. Didier’s sharp choreography. The score features jazz, gospel, blues and pop ballads, and Ms. Didier infuses her production with dances ranging from Americana choreography to African storytelling. Once again Eugene Dizon’s skillful musical direction mines the beautiful choral harmonies and fine solo work to be found in this score.
The cast is led by captivating Chicago newcomer, Trisha Jeffrey, as Celie. She absolutely holds this show in the palm of her diminutive hand. Ms. Jeffrey debuted in Broadway’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” later appearing in “Rent” and “All Shook Up,” and just recently completed the National Tour of “Sister Act.” In other words, this actress not only has proven stage experience but the vocal chops and dynamic charisma to match. We watch her Celie’s continual growth as her story plays out. And although the last few scenes feel less complete, by the final curtain the audience is weeping with Celie as she finally reunites with Nettie and the children she’s never known.
Every actor in this production brings exceptional vocal, dance and acting talent to his role. Jasondra Johnson is a revelation as a wonderfully spunky and warm Sofia, providing both humor and pathos while belting out numbers like her signature, “Hell No” and her comic duet with Harpo, “Is There Anything I Can Do For You.” Lovely Adrienne Walker, memorable in Marriott’s “Dreamgirls” and Court Theatre’s “Porgy and Bess,” is both sensual (“Push Da Button”) and nurturing (“Too Beautiful for Words”) as Shug; her duet with Celie, “What About Love,” will be the pull-out standard that everyone will be singing. Other standouts include Donica Lynn as a take-no-prisoners Church Soloist; Sydney Charles, Carrie Louise Abernathy and Brittany L. Bradshaw as the hilarious Greek chorus-like church lady trio, Doris, Darlene and Jarene; Keithon Gipson, making a stunning, solid Chicago debut as Mister; and Evan Tyrone Martin (“Violet,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) bringing his tall, lanky comic stature to Harpo.
L. Walter Stearns has taken this somewhat rambling script and directed an exciting, heartfelt production that takes its audience on an intimate, heroic journey. Featured is a cast of exciting actors portraying a variety of unique characters, all raising their voices in rousing song while engaging in thrilling choreography. There is little more one can expect from such a literary masterpiece that, above all, reaffirms the strength and lasting power of love.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 26-October 27 by Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Avenue.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-325-1700 or by visiting www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.