“The Color Purple” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse is triumphal and perfectly staged. Seldom do so many elements come together so beautifully.
The book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray are true to the language and the spirit of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Will Abrahamse’s set beautifully captures the time and place and is highlighted by outstanding lighting by John Chenault. The set changes are accomplished with minimal distraction. Helping to make the set changes so smooth are first, the brilliant use of a curtain with a quote from Celie printed on it and second, two paper trees that hang from the ceiling and are moved as if they are puppets. The bright green lighting on the backdrop during the Africa scene with the ensemble in bright blue costumes was breathtaking.
The costumes by Janet English are vibrant and have an authentic look. The direction and choreography (Jon Douglas Rake) and music (Jeff Stvrtecky) are fabulous.
And the cast – wow. I can’t praise the cast enough.
There could not be a better choice to play Celie than Stacie Calkins, my “Critic’s Choice” pick for best actress in a musical in 2006-2007 for her performance as Essie White in “Dreamgirls.” Calkins’ voice can be as full and soulful at Billie Holiday and as powerful as Jennifer Hudson. Her singing in “Hairspray,” “Rent” and “I’m Into Something Good” has consistently wowed me and South Sound audiences, and now we see that she can also act with profound emotion and with restraint.
Antonia Darlene is sassy and soulful as Sofia, the role so memorably played by Oprah Winfrey in the movie. I have marveled at Darlene’s singing in shows such as “Rent” and “Ragtime,” but I have never before seen her display such comedic talent. Her rousing anthem, “Hell No!” is a real knockout, and her duet with Justin Thornton as Harpo on “Is There Anything I Can Do for You?” is both touching and joyful. Thornton is well matched with her and is classy throughout.
Tena DuBerry is a powerful stage presence as Shug Avery. Her sexy big blues number, “Push Da Button” in Harpo’s juke join brings down the house.
Vincent Orduña as Mister and Early Crosson as Ol’ Mister are outstanding. It is easy to see why two actors were needed, because Mister undergoes such a radical change as he grows old. Crosson and Orduña look enough alike that if they had not been listed in the program I would have thought they were a single actor aged by the magic of makeup, but the actors’ voices and posture convincingly create the impression of a man grown older and mellower.
Ashanti CoLé Proctor plays Celie’s sister, Nettie, with grace. Proctor and Calkins complement one another sweetly in the opening scene of act two with “Africa” and earlier with Orduña on the song “Our Prayer.” By the way, Gabrielle Garcia-Brown as Young Celie and Natalie Hanson as Young Nettie are charming in the play’s opening scene and the transition from them to the adult sisters is excellent.
Also outstanding are DuWayne Andrews Jr. as Grady and the four ladies from the church choir who act as a combination of town gossips and a comedic Greek chorus with their gossip coming in the form of gospel singing. These ladies are: Carmen Brantley-Payne (soloist) and Claudette Hatcher, Jamelia Payne and Anjelica Wolf.
In addition to all of that talent, every member of the ensemble easily could take a lead role. This 32-actor cast rocks. The score runs the gamut from jazz to ragtime, gospel, African music and blues.
The story is a joyful triumph of heart over adversity and cruelty. Celie and Nettie and Sofia are subjected to unbelievable abuse and deprivation, but triumph in the end. There are controversial issues having to do with race and with the love affair between two women (Celie and Shug) that are handled thoughtfully and without flinching.
It’s easy to see why this musical was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score. Though I never saw the Broadway show, I can’t imagine that cast overshadows the professionally skilled amateurs at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
Tacoma Musical Playhouse lists “The Color Purple” as not being recommended for those younger than 13. I think that’s a shame. Kids as young as 8 or 9 could enjoy it and should be allowed. Discussion with their guardians before and after the show is recommended.