Review by Adam Cohen
If you love singing – pure, rich, emotional, transformative harmonies, rousing odes to empowerment, jazz, gospel, ragtime, and blues – then click over to Papermill Playhouse and book your tickets to their production of The Color Purple.
Powered by this amazing score, The Color Purple focuses on African-American women finding their way in the rural South during the first half of the 20th century. The men are brutes who take what they want. Yet in the hands of this talented, capable, vibrant cast the depiction of hardships and deprivation lead to self-confidence via a surging anthem of redemption.
The outline of the story, and several chunks of dialogue, are familiar to anyone conversant with Alice Walker’s 1982 book or the film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. We meet sisters Celie (played here by Adrianna Hicks) and Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) at their rural Georgian homestead in 1909. Fourteen-year-old Celie gives birth to her second child at the top of the show, the product of rape by the man she believes to be her father. Like the first, her second baby is immediately taken from her and sold away or believed killed. She’s soon given to whip-wielding farmer Mister (Gavin Gregory) who treats her as a slave sentencing her to hard labor and sexual exploitation rather than a marriage. Nettie, who is two years younger than her sister, prettier, and studying to be a teacher, flees in the face of sexual advances by her father and by Mister.
Celie finds respites of hope in her unlikely friendships with stronger woman like Mister’s mistress Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a touring singer. Mister’s adult son Harpo (Jay Donnell) and his wife Sofia (Carrie Compere) are pivotal – with Sofia serving as a role-model and pillar of strength. Shug plays her sexuality and desire for fame to her advantage but comes to feel the limitations created by this bargain. Sofia fights the power and is punished cruelly. Celie endures Mister’s beatings and humiliations for decades before asserting herself and claiming her personhood, declaring (to roaring audience approval) “I’m here” in the song of the same name.
The production is lovely, moving, and spare. The set and efficient direction is by John Doyle. The minimal but effective set is composed of three tall, wooden panels that suggest a broken-down house or cabin; wooden chairs are hung on pegs all over them and frequently removed and rearranged around the stage by the cast. Jane Cox’s lighting design creates an appropriate septia tone.
The score (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) dips into various forms of early-century African-American music, gospel, blues, jazz, work songs and bluesy swing. The three female leads Compere (who also played Sofia on Broadway), Stewart and Hicks are all given showcase numbers and each delivers in turn. Backed by a defacto Greek chorus there’s rousing harmonies and lush musicality that strengths each number. Hicks sings with gusto and brings a steely grit to Celie. Compere is a power house, nailing Sofia’s defiance and charm. Stewart is a sly Shug, sashaying and flirting her way through. N’Jameh Camara’s Nettie adds to the heaping portions of emotion, pity, sass and comedy to the show’s dramatic bounty. The women are the backbone of the production, girding it with individual, impactful, beautiful performances rich with strength, powerful, searing vocals.
Tickets and more information at papermill.org