SALT LAKE CITY – Like the Pulitzer prizewinning book and popular movie that preceded it, The Color Purple stage musical is a powerful testament to enduring love, the ability to triumph over tragedy and the joy of seeing God’s hand in all that surrounds us. After running for more than two years on Broadway and earning 10 Tony nominations, the second national touring company brings The Color Purple to the Capitol Theatre. At Tuesday’s opening-night performance, the audience leaped to reward the show’s vibrant 25-member cast.
As she proved in with The Secret Garden and The Red Shoes, Tony- and Pulitzer-winner Marsha Norman knows how to adapt well-loved stories into fully realized stage works. The musical does a better job than the 1985 film to capture the joyful heart of acclaimed author Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel. The horror of the abuse is softened, and more stage time is given to secondary characters and their community. Missing only is Walker’s theme of racial indignity. Though undistinguished, the songs help to establish character and amplify emotions. They quickly fade away into a ragtag mixture gospel, boogie-woogie, torch ballads and superfluous African rhythms. This is understandable given the trio of songwriters’ nonexistent musical theatre experience. Director Gary Griffin capably leads this well-rehearsed and wonderfully strong ensemble of musical players so they don’t overshadow Color Purple’s central story.
As Celie, the downtrodden woman who finds her own power late in life, Dayna Jarae Dantzler ignites her scenes with a lovely, poignant performance. It was a joy to see the actress convincingly age from an awkward 14 to a vibrant 54. She lovingly caresses her infant during the “Somebody Gonna Love You” lullaby. When she raises the roof with her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” it is deeply moving and becomes a communal cathartic experience. Playing the pleasure-seeking Shrug Avery, Taprena Augustine sizzles. Her “Push Da Button” rouses through her sultry elegance. Celie and Shrug’s intimate “What About Love?” is a moving ballad despite the banal lyrics, and the actors create a truly tender moment. The substantial Sofia, warmly played by Pam Trotter, is delightfully saucy in the “Any Little Thing” amusing second act duet with Harpo (Lee Edward Colston II). Sofia’s “Hell No!” is one of the evening’s major showstoppers and also earns the loudest laughs.
Nettie (Traci Allen) projects exciting wonder with Celie in “Our Prayer.” The trio of songstresses (Deaun Parker, Virlinda Stanton and Nesha Ward), a favorite convention for modern Broadway writers–see Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors and Caroline, or Change–entertains us throughout as the town’s all-knowing Churchladies. Edward C. Smith gives a convincing transformation as Celie’s abusive husband, Mister/Albert. Smith clearly sees the error of his ways in the powerful “Celie’s Curse.” However, he’s saddled with the show’s largest disappointment, “Mister’s Song,” which should be a striking redemptive ballad.
The period-sensitive costumes add much flavor to the proceedings. Restored to this tour is the original heavily beaded gown for Shrug’s juke joint introduction. There are changes physically from the Broadway version. Gone is the towering tree in which Nettie and Celie played hand games as girls. Sets are scaled down to backdrops and small gliding units with props, and Shrug’s lemon-yellow Studebaker Roadster becomes an off-stage honk.
The message of The Color Purple is that redemption may span a lifetime and can involve an entire community. And with deliverance there should be “a joyful noise unto the Lord.”
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