By Ruth Ross
You may have loved Alice Walker’s novel and the 1985 film version starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, but you’ll marvel at the musical version of The Color Purple now onstage at the Paper Mill Theatre in Millburn. With its inventive staging, strong performances and majestic music, this iteration of Walker’s tale of female empowerment—in particular, black female empowerment—feels as relevant to the #Metoo era of 2018 as it was when Walker wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1982.
The plot charting Celie’s transformation from shy 14-year-old impregnated by her Pa to Mister’s abused, overworked wife to powerful, independent woman unfolds on a bare four-level stage over which loom three wooden towers holding many chairs, which are taken down and arranged by the actors to suit various locations. (left, Adrianna Hicks as Celie and Carrie Compere as Nellie)
Denied the love of family—her newborn children are given away by her Pa, and her beloved big sister Nettie flees to escape Mister’s unwanted attentions—Celie actually believes she is worthless and ugly until two very strong women, her sister-in-law Sofia and entertainer Shug Avery, point out her inner beauty and strength. Indeed, it’s Shug who references the play’s title, telling Celie to open up her eyes to see the world’s beauty, especially the “color purple” created by God. Through a series of revelations, Celie learns to assert herself, ending up as a noted designer and maker of pants for women and men so she can be financially independent, and to finally get the love she so obviously deserves.
Adrianna Hicks’ portrayal of Celie(right) is nothing short of astonishing. She looks and feels small in the opening scenes, singing a children’s song, praying with her sister and trying to melt into the background so no one will notice her. Over the course of the action, Hicks appears to grow taller in stature, and her apparent physical ugliness in the beginning blooms into real beauty by the final scenes. Her voice, once so quiet, lets us know she’s been transformed, especially in the anthem announcing “I’m Here.” Her wonder at learning things that will change her life (no spoilers!) is palpable, and her love for Shug Avery endearing.
Shug, played with sass and vitality by Carla R. Stewart (left, center), is the liberated black woman who not only guides Celie on the path to enlightenment but really loves her (although at times you wouldn’t know it). Stewart conveys the vulnerability of a woman trying to withdraw from alcohol and drugs, yet she knows how to “Push da Button” to arouse the men who hang on her every word. And she tells Celie she’s “Too Beautiful for Words” in a tender ballad.
Carrie Compere, who played Sofia on Broadway as well as on the national tour, fills the stage whenever she appears, and in “Hell No!” her Sofia lets us know in no uncertain terms that she won’t be pushed around by her husband Harpo (Jay Donnell). Compere wears Sofia’s feistiness like a robe and proves to be a good role model for Celie who finally gets the gumption to talk back to her demanding husband.
Gavin Gregory (left) has the thankless role of evil Mister, and he performs it very well. Alternately leering, growling and stomping around, he’s the true epitome of the “Big Dog” so admired by the other men. His harrowing response to “Celie’s Curse” aside, he manages to be sympathetic in the final scenes when he apologizes to Celie and tries to reestablish their relationship. As Celie’s sister, the appropriately prim Nettie, N’jameh Camara recounts her sojourn in Africa teaching the native children to read and conveys the horror of being attacked by soldiers and having the village burn down around them. And Erica Durham is an adorable Squeak who schemes to take Sofia’s place in Harpo’s heart but is not above seeking fame in Memphis. The rest of the ensemble provides terrific support, singing, dancing and acting a variety of roles from gossiping, judgmental Church Ladies to denizens of Harpo’s juke joint.
John Doyle, the original director of both the London and New York productions of The Color Purple, appears to have transferred both versions seamlessly to the Paper Mill Playhouse stage. He even designed the sets and staged the musical. One of the motifs, folding, unfolding and refolding large sheets of cloth signifies the endless work of Southern black women; its counterpart is seen in Africa with large swaths of brightly colored native cloth are unfurled and refolded. Ann Hould-Ward’s cotton dresses are appropriate to poor black women while Shug’s beaded dresses and coats let us know she’s “arrived.” Jane Cox is to be commended for her lighting design as is Dan Moses Schreier for sound. Conductor Darryl Archibald’s orchestra provides able accompaniment without overpowering the singers.
When women are treated as objects to be used and abused, they often believe they are worthless. Shug and Sofia’s strength, Nettie’s dogged quest for an education and Celie’s transformation into an independent woman who doesn’t need a man remind us of women’s vital role in shaping society and anchoring the family, while pursuing their own dreams. And, while the men don’t come off too well throughout most of the play, they too are redeemed by love. (Above, women in Celie’s pants; Adrianna Hicks in center)
You may not have seen the Broadway production of The Color Purple, but you won’t have to go far to experience the power of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s music and lyrics and Marsha Norman’s literate script. This ground-breaking musical is perfect for teens and adults of any age. Its uplifting message is just the antidote to what some feel to be the chaos swirling around us today.
The Color Purple will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through October 21. For performance information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.
P.S. The Color Purple opens Paper Mill Playhouse’s 80th season in their newly-renovated auditorium. Check out the comfortable seats and nifty new carpet!
Photos by Jerry Dalia.