The Color Purple
Music/Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis
Now extended through November 10!
Inspiring story and jubilant music makes this one a winner
|The Mercury Theater presents|
|The Color Purple|
Review by John Olson
This third entry into the Mercury’s first season of self-production stakes some different territory from the first two. Mercury’s A Grand Night for Singing (which I didn’t catch) was a revue, and Barnum a family-friendly spectacle of circus, magic and bouncy Cy Coleman tunes. With The Color Purple, director Walter Stearns, music director Eugene Dizon and choreographer Brenda Didier have taken on a full-fledged, mostly sung-through musical drama. To deliver the abundant, soulful score by pop writers Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, they’ve enlisted powerful singers, and a company that dances as well as they sing. Though the voices are amplified (quite expertly by sound designer Mike Ross), there’s still a special resonance in hearing them inside this 292-seat house rather than the giant theaters of Broadway or touring houses which until recently offered our only opportunities to see them. The story of a poor rural African-American woman in the rural south across several decades of the 20th Century ultimately lands in this production, in spite of a few missteps and minor disappointments along the way.
As is becoming the norm in Chicago Equity productions, the producers have brought in a performer with Broadway credentials to handle the lead. As is also the norm, this one’s a winner. Trisha Jeffrey is the Mercury’s Celie, and she gives the character a winning childish nature while skillfully showing her evolution from abused child and battered common-law wife to empowered and independent woman. Jeffrey keeps the essential childlike vulnerability of Celie present even as her character changes and ages by some thirty or so years. She nails her songs with a powerhouse voice and even shows herself to be one heck of a dancer for a brief time in the number “Africa” early in Act Two. She’s an immensely likeable and believable Celie and we’re happy to take the journey with her. Among the other fascinating characters created by Alice Walker for the novel on which the musical is based, most satisfyingly played is Celie’s son Harpo, represented here by Evan Tyrone Martin. Martin gives Harpo a boyish naiveté and charm and, with his singing and dancing skill, shows why he’s become such a hot commodity in Chicago musical theatre. Impressive, too, is Jasondra Johnson as Harp’s feisty wife Sofia.
Singing and dancing-wise, the principals are glorious throughout, but acting-wise, the portrayals of Celie’s abusive husband “Mister” and the jazz singer Shug Avery, the woman they both share, are both a little thin. Keithon Gipson, a handsome and classically trained singer has more than enough pipes and presence for the man who dominates so much of Celie’s life, but he isn’t menacing enough for my taste. Maybe it’s the guy’s looks are too refined, but he somehow comes off as too charming and appealing to be scary. Appropriately charming and sexy is Adrienne Walker as Shug, especially when singing, but her acting doesn’t fully capture the charisma we need to believe this singer could drive both men and women wild.
It seems Stearns was deliberately trying to soften the harshness of this very dark, although ultimately uplifting, story. He and Didier further dial down the tension by making the men in the ensemble seem absolutely comic in their horniness, and it detracts from the story’s uncompromising view of a woman impregnated twice by her presumed father, forced to bear and then immediately give up her two children, and led on – by the husband who beats and belittles her for years – to believe her beloved younger sister is dead. This is serious stuff, and though bookwriter Marsha Norman keeps it hopeful and leavened with comic relief and warmth, it seems phony not to commit more fully to depicting this atrocious behavior.
The demands of this piece, with its cinematic series of short scenes over multiple locales and many years are sometimes – especially in the exposition heavy first act – a strain on the size of the Mercury stage. The smaller physical size in this house versus those aforementioned Broadway and touring house behemoths is a disadvantage at times. The adequate set by Bob Knuth, a series of clapboard walls rolled on and off stage, insufficiently shows contrast between settings to let us know we’re somewhere new, and it occasionally takes just a little too long to move those pieces around, giving the series of short scenes in Norman’s book a certain choppiness in Act One.
Even so, the total package of the abundant and beautiful costumes by Frances Maggio, gorgeous lighting by Nick Belley and the powerful singing and dancing of the entire company make this a satisfying and moving production. Add to this Stearns and Didier’s direction and choreography, and it’s an unabashedly carnal one as well. The resonance of The Color Purple’s themes – sexism and male-domination on one level, but at its heart a story of hope for the downtrodden at any level – and the richness of the score blending pop, gospel, jazz/blues and African folk music make the case for this musical becoming a standard.
The Color Purple continues through
October 27th November 10th at The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays 2pm and 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $22-$59, and are available by phone (773-325-1700) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MercuryTheaterChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 35 mintues, includes an intermission)
Photos by Brett Beiner
Trisha Jeffrey (Celie), Jasondra Johnson (Sophia), Adrienne Walker (Shug), Keithon Gipson (Mister), Cortez Johnson (Ol’ Mister, Pa, Chief), Evan Tyrone Martin (Harpo, Preacher), Carrie Louise Abernathy (Doris, Ensemble), Sydney Charles (Darlene, Ensemble), Brittany Bradshaw (Jarene, Ensemble), Travis Porchia (Buster, Grady, Ensemble), Crystal Corinne Wood (Nettie), Sidra Henderson (Young Olivia, Henrietta), Donterrio Jaye Johnson (Young Man, Adam), Ninah Snipes (Squeak, Olivia, Ensemble), Donica Lynn (Church Soloist, ensemble), Katrina V. Miller, Aaron Holland, Crystal Wood (ensemble).
behind the scenes
L. Walter Stearns (director), Eugene Dizon (musical director), Bob Knuth (set design), Brenda Didier choreographer), Craig V. Miller, Andrew Waters (asst. choreographers), Frances Maggio (costume design), Nick Belley (lighting design), Mike Ross (sound design). Kristi Martens (stage manager), Daniel J. Hanson, Oliver Townsend (asst. stage managers), Matthew Gunnels (asst. director), Daniel Friedman (asst. lighting designer), Ric Combs (technical director), R&D Choreography (violence design), Travis Porchia (dance captain), Brett Beiner (photos)