Chicago Theatre Review
What About Love?
The Color Purple – Milwaukee Rep
Experiencing love’s transformation and healing power can redirect a person’s life. Understanding a sense of self-worth can bring an individual full circle, from subservience and hopelessness to independence and confidence. Alice Walker’s beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, tells the story of a downtrodden young African-American girl named Celie who rose from an abusive married life to become a strong, independent entrepreneur, able to stand on her two feet.
The book was adapted for the screen in 1985 by Steven Spielberg, and more recently Marsha Norman (“The Secret Garden,” “The Bridges of Madison County”) scripted a theatrical version, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Brey. The New York production, directed by Chicago’s Gary Griffin, opened on Broadway in 2005 earning eleven Tony nominations and playing three years, eventually spawning several national touring companies. The show has recently become a popular addition to the seasons of many regional theatres.
Mark Clements opens Milwaukee Rep’s 2014-15 season with his soulful, powerfully directed production of this uplifting story of redemption and love. His production pays homage both to Ms. Walker’s novel as well as the popular film, and features a cast of exciting performers. Mr. Clements directing prowess has been proven in many of the Rep’s past productions, most notably last season’s heartbreaking “Ragtime.” He’s ably assisted by Dan Kazemi’s brisk musical direction, as well as Amy Hall Garner’s spirited, artistically stylized choreography.
The entire ensemble is first-rate. Their energy and musical talents carry the show. Featured among the ensemble are the hilarious, gossipy church ladies who provide much of the show’s humor: Darlene, Doris and Jarene, often accompanied by the Church Soloist. They’re played respectively by the incomparable Melody Betts, Vallea E. Woodbury, Vanessa A. Jones-Dubose and Allyson Kaye Daniel. Opening night challenged these actresses with faulty body microphones but, being the professionals they are, the ladies provided their own projection until the problem could be fixed.
For the most part, this musical primarily features the talents of some fantastic women. Zonya Love returns to the Rep in the leading role of Celie. This actress is one incredible singer with the charisma and a smile that lights up the whole city. Mister may call Celie “ugly,” but the audience only beholds a heartbreaking, beautiful lady steering this production. Nettie, Celie’s younger sister, who runs away to escape abuse and becomes an African missionary, is played with grace and heart by the gorgeous Stephanie Umoh, making her Milwaukee Rep debut. The sibling relationship forged by these two actresses is warm and honest and constitutes the heart of this play. These two will break audiences’ hearts night after night with the journey they travel.
The pride of Chicago, mega-talented Bethany Thomas, seen last season in “Ragtime,” returns in the role of Sofia. As one of Celie’s role models, Ms. Thomas, who can easily belt a song to back of the balcony, plays a no-nonsense woman who won’t be beaten down or taken advantage of by anyone, least of all by any man. Her theme song, “Hell No!” is only one of Ms. Thomas’ standout numbers. Celie’s other role model and, besides her sister, the one person who truly loves her is Shug Avery, played with sensual independence by Christina Acosta Robinson. Her affection and mentorship is what enables Celie to survive and realize her own potential. Ms. Robinson brings down the house with her contagious “Push Da Button,” and her beautiful duet with Celie, “What About Love?” becomes the anthem of the show.
Other noteworthy performances are turned in by Jessie Hooker’s humorously annoying Squeak; Nathaniel Stampley as Celie’s sadistic, chauvinistic bully of a husband, Mister, who finds his own change of heart; and Gilbert L. Bailey II as a delightfully charming and humorous Harpo. Carl Clemons-Hopkins is wonderful as an energetic, life-affirming Preacher and Darryl Ruben Hall is memorable as Ol’ Mister, the man who was the model for Mister’s hatred and unpleasantness.
Alexander B. Tecoma’s beautiful period wigs and costumes, especially the church ladies’ dresses and chapeaux, provide much of the color and style for this show. Todd Edwards Ivins’ brilliant scenic design, incorporating a proscenium of wood scraps and a backdrop of horizontally pleated fabric and thoughtfully and artistically illuminated by Thomas C. Hase, is the sweet icing on the cake.
In a production that rewards audiences with exciting performances, beautiful music, sassy choreography and theatrical scenic spectacle, for which the Rep has become noted, there is only wonder and joy emanating from the stage. Milwaukee has a stellar, professional theatre that consistently offers Broadway caliber productions, show after show; this is no exception. Alice Walker would be proud to see how her novel has sprung to life in Wisconsin, thanks to the vision and artistry of Mark Clements and his talented cast and production team. Search no further for love: it’s playing on the Milwaukee Rep stage.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 23-November 2 by the Milwaukee Rep at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, WI.
Tickets are available in person at the Milwaukee Rep box office, by calling 414-224-9490 or by going to www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.