Director Joyce Licorish is taking her production of The Color Purple on the road after sharing it twice now with Indianapolis audiences via her company The Cupboard Presents. I missed the show during its sold-out run at the Athenaeum last February, but I saw all three performances at the Marian University Theatre this past weekend.
The “tech” — e.g., the sound and lighting — was pretty ragged at first, perhaps because the venue was new to all involved. On Friday, people were singing in the dark. Microphones were either not working at all or turned up so high as to distort the sound. Crew were moving set pieces on and off in unnecessarily distracting ways while actors were talking or singing. And so on.
It got much better as the weekend progressed, but even on Sunday afternoon the curtain started to go up behind actors in the middle of a downstage scene and there were some odd moments with the lights. I don’t have any suggestions for how to quickly feel at home in a new space, but that is what all involved will have to do in order to succeed on the road.
That said, I went back a third time because the pleasures in this show far outweigh the disappointments.
First there’s the musical itself, which is taken from the Steven Spielberg movie, which was based on Alice Walker’s powerful novel. It is the hero’s journey of a girl named Celie. What she goes through is horrible. For example, her father forces her at age 14 to live with another abusive man when he tires of raping her himself. But she also knows love and joy. By the time she is middle-aged or a bit older, she finds a precious inner strength and wisdom.
The songs in the musical are beautiful and enrich one’s experience of the novel and the movie, although the stage show can also be understood and enjoyed on its own.
I have seen only one other production of this show: the touring show that Broadway Across America brought to Clowes Hall in 2009. The performers in this production are as good as, and in some cases better than, the performers in that production. They are of five-star quality, both in terms of acting and singing.
Makeda Grier makes Celie easy to root for: stoic yet perceptive, with a mischievous sense of humor and an enduring impulse to be kind in spite of being shut down. The other principals give equally rich portrayals.
Dee (Dutchez) Duvall is captivating as Shug, the woman who both heals Celie’s heart and breaks it open again. Dennis Jones as Mista (Celie’s common-law husband) exquisitely shows us the man’s vulnerability as well as his brutality.
LaKesha Lorene is endearingly wholesome as Celie’s beloved sister, Nettie. Joyce Licorish is a hilarious, but not cartoonish, force of nature as Sofia, the outspoken woman that marries Celie’s stepson, Harpo.
Lyndell Campbell (aka Izzy Amore) is a heart-stopper as Harpo, not just because of his physical gorgeousness or the beauty of his singing voice, but because he nails Harpo’s little boy inside the man quality. The playful, sexual chemistry between Sofia and Harpo is intoxicating.
All of the singing is, like one of the songs in the show says, “too beautiful for words.”
The supporting cast members are all strong, too. I want to give a special shout for the three busy-bodies that gather information and sit in judgement. Kila J. Adams, Dakeisha Bryant, and Sandy Lomax are wickedly adorable as Church Lady Jarene, Church Lady Doris and Church Lady Darrene, respectively.
Three other treats: The orchestra under the direction of vocal coach Andy Morales is sassy and bright. The dancers expertly perform exuberant choreography by Nicholas Owens. Marina Turner’s costumes are splendid and/or delightful where appropriate and well chosen throughout.