By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
Imagine Alice Walker’s book “The Color Purple” in which the story of Celie would be a happy tale. Walker would write of an idyllic, happy childhood in which Celie’s mother and father unconditionally love him and his brother Nettie. Later, when the siblings attend college together, they would court rich, eligible co-eds, whom they would eventually marry and who would bear them large, prosperous families for the rest of their bountiful, blissful lives.
That version may eventually come to pass, perhaps when the Hebrew translation is permitted to be published by Walker. But in the meantime, we have Walker’s woeful tale of Celie, a simple woman who endures the most horrible of conditions while growing up as a maltreated, impoverished woman in the South. First a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning 1982 novel and, later adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1985 Steven Spielberg film, The Color Purple first arrived as a musical on Broadway in 2005. Produced by Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s original stars, and Quincy Jones, it ran for more than 900 performances before closing.
The show was retooled and opened for the first time in London in 2013 for a short West End run. That show memorably starred British actress Cynthia Erivo, who received an Olivier for her role as Celie. The show was then revived on Broadway in late 2015, winning a Tony Award for Erivo and a nod for Best Revival in the year of Hamilton‘s near sweep of almost every other category.
The national tour of the Tony Award winning The Color Purple came to New Orleans last year at the Saenger Theater as part of the Broadway Across New Orleans series. When the tour ended, Troika Entertainment, under the helm of general manager and New Orleanian Brian Schrader, obtained the rights to mount another tour and marginally altered a few items from last year’s production. As an example, two fewer actors are in this year’s company and the size of the set has been reduced slightly.
What remains, however, might be leaner on paper, but it is still very impressive. The tightly-knit company was in final rehearsals just this past week and is beginning the first leg of a new national tour here in New Orleans at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts now through Sunday.
With music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray and a book by Marsha Norman, The Color Purple is a deeply-moving and powerful work that finds its beginnings steeped in the spirituals of the Old South and gospel music, but with acknowledgments to jazz and ragtime too. The opening number of “Huckleberry Pie” establishes the rooting of this material as the townspeople attend church and gossip about Celie. This continues in “Mysterious Ways.”
We first see Celie, played by a fierce and boundless Mariah Lyttle, as a beleaguered and pathetic victim of unspeakable abuse. Throughout her victimization at the hands of one man after another – whether it be her stepfather or the man who would marry her to keep her as a virtual slave in his kitchen and bedroom – Celie endures her plight with determination and pluck.
She finds solace in the company of her sister Nettie (Milika Cherée), and she endeavors to carry on their relationship until external factors make that impossible. Lyttle’s rendition of Celie is central to the appreciation of the strength of the character. During the first act, when we are seeing how she is put upon by men, she keeps her voice in check, allowing the other characters to have their say and establish themselves. As her character grows, so does the level of volume in her vocals. By the end of Act Two, Lyttle is firmly and unashamedly in control.
The malevolent Mister is played by Andrew Malone and comes into his own in “Big Dog,” a call and response with the men who work his farm. The son of a slave who is intent on making something of himself, he carries a whip with him when we first see him. It is a symbol of his authority and emphasizes his overbearing and repugnant attitude toward Celie and anyone else who doesn’t heed his word or wishes. Malone is ultimately a victim of his own hubris in matters of dealing with people in a civil manner.
As he is criticized by his own father, Ol’ Mister (Mon’Quez Deon Pippins), Mister lashes out at his own son Harpo (Brandon A. Wright), especially when he finds love in the arms of a loud and proud woman named Sofia. Chédra Arielle plays the role of Sofia as a no-nonsense, stubborn and determined woman whose mouth and attitude often place her at the center of trouble. In many ways, she is the antithesis of Celie, who allows the world of men to walk over her and bend her to their will. Sofia will have none of that.
While Mister may have initially had his eyes set on Nettie as a potential wife, he makes no bones about the fact that his heart has always been attracted to Shug Avery, a lascivious woman of scarlet background who wears a dress the same shade to announce to the world she doesn’t care. Sandie Lee, who plays Shug Avery, doesn’t make her first stage appearance until midway through the first act. But when she does, she sings two numbers back to back, giving the audience a thrill as to her talent in moving from a touching ballad (“Too Beautiful for Words”) to a lusty blues number rife with double entendres (“Push da Button”).
It is only appropriate that Lyttle and Lee close out the first act with a duet between Celie and Shug, “What About Love?,” a song which reinforces the affection the two women share for one another. It is Shug Avery who sets into motion the events which will bring about Celie’s independence and her eventual redemption.
The plaintive title song (“The Color Purple”) appears twice in Act Two. It is first rendered by Shug when she attempts to ameliorate Celie’s unhappiness and loss of faith and, finally, it is the closing number with Celie and the company, which concludes with a final crescendo of “Amen!”
Gabriella Rodriguez, as Squeak, leads a group of very fine supporting players which includes Shelby A Sykes, Parris Lewis and Elizabeth Adabale as Church Ladies.
While this is a non-Equity cast, Troika has gone to great lengths to ensure this is a top flight group of actors, dancers and singers. John Doyle is listed for both direction and musical staging and he is to be congratulated on assembling a fine cast of performers. The backing chorus fills the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts with ease and their movement on stage is timed perfectly. This show delivers every bit that is expected and more.
Notably, the Act Two opener of “African Homeland” has the cast members alternately moving bright African sheets, which undulate like rivers and provide a fitting representation of the far off continent as Nettie walks beneath them and becomes one with them while Celie calls out to her sister.
While the horrors Celie endures are stinging and bound to brings tears to audience members, her vindication is especially pleasing and gives audience members a renewed sense of hope and promise in their wake. This production is riveting and beautifully rendered. The level of professionalism by all the artists practicing their craft is at a very high level and makes for an endearing night of musical theatre. Due to its frank nature of adult subjects, however, it is not recommended for younger children.
The national tour of The Color Purple: The Musical continues at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 801 North Rampart in New Orleans, LA. with performances tonight, Saturday, October 26 and Sunday, October 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets may not be available online, but may be available at the box office.