Size matters. (But it’s not what you’re thinking.) In the case of The Color Purple, I’ve seen three successive productions. Two were national tours in Philadelphia that derived from Broadway. The first, directed by Gary Griffin, was splashy but overproduced. Next came John Doyle’s leaner reading, which also proved more poignant. With each, the show was presented on a smaller scale, and it benefitted. Less proved to be a whole lot more.
Now comes Theatre Horizon’s current production—the best yet, by a considerable margin. Their intimate venue forges an ideal connection between action and audience. Director Amina Robinson has reached into Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s skillful but necessarily simplified musical adaptation and found the heart and soul of Alice Walker’s great novel. And a sensational ensemble cast—superb individually and as a unit—sing and act the hell out of the show. It’s a glorious evening all around.
In fact, there is something epic about The Color Purple. That’s certainly the case in Walker’s epistolary tale of two African American sisters, Celie and Nettie, whose hardscrabble lives in the early twentieth century take them on separate trajectories across the world. Nettie’s leads to missionary work in Africa. Celie’s is much rougher—an abusive marriage in rural Georgia, where prejudice and violence are daily facts of life. Celie is regularly berated as ugly, slow, worthless. Her few moments of pleasure derive largely from a relationship with the glamorous Shug Avery, a blues singer her husband lusts after.
Walker, with no coyness, makes it clear that Celie and Shug are themselves also in love. Previous iterations of the musical have been very guarded about this, but among the many things Robinson gets exactly right is to put the frank sexuality of The Color Purple proudly back into the narrative.
Even more important is this production’s consistent emphasis on the small character studies that are The Color Purple’s main attraction. Previous mountings of the show have put the weight on virtuoso delivery of the songs. They are all very well done here, too—but even more powerful are the conversations that make Celie, Nettie, Shug, Celie, Squeak, Harpo and the rest come to life as real human beings.
Among the cast, I single out Jessica M. Johnson’s Celie, profoundly touching through both acting and singing, Ebony Pullum’s Shug (ditto), Jessica Muse Money’s Nettie (maybe the vocal knockout of the cast), and Donnie Hammond’s show-stopping turn as Sofia. But really, they’re all terrific. Scenery (by Sara Outing), costumes (Elizabeth Ennis), and lighting (Alyssandra Docherty) perfectly capture the mood. Music director Amanda Morton and her small but excellent band raise the roof.
The Color Purple at Theatre Horizon has already been extended twice, but with just over a hundred seats, tickets will be at a premium. Still, by all means make the effort to go—you’ll be amply rewarded.
The Color Purple plays through December 23. For more information, visit the Theatre Horizon website.
Categories: Criticism, Philadelphia, TICKET/PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE
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