Where: The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
When: through Oct. 27
By ANNE SPISELMAN
After the opening number of the new production of “The Color Purple” at the Mercury Theater, I was seriously worried. It had all the earmarks of a high school or college show. Bob Knuth’s set looked slapped together. Nick Belley’s lighting seemed amateurish. Some of Frances Maggio’s costumes had a homemade appearance. The blocking was sloppy; the smallish stage made the dancing cramped, and the sound system was cranked up so high, the singing ranged from shouty to screechy, with the Church Soloist (Donica Lynn) standing out in the latter category.
I’d like to say that I needn’t have fretted, but that’s not entirely true. Based on Alice Walker’s epic novel, the 2005 Broadway hit with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray goes for broad portrayals and big emotional punches, and director L. Walter Stearns inadvertently spotlights some of its weaknesses. The redeeming feature — in a musical about redemption (and love and female empowerment) — is a couple of powerhouse performances.
The first act of a script covering roughly half a century is a series of short scenes, many of them rather perfunctory to get the basic exposition across, though some of the details are muddled. We learn that 14-year-old Celie (Trisha Jeffrey) has had two babies by her father, who’s taken them away from her. Then we see her foisted off on Mister (Keithon Gipson) and separated from her beloved sister, Nettie (Crystal Corinne Wood). Next, we witness the misery of Celie’s life as a physically and emotionally abused wife/drudge over and over, punctuated by songs. Relief eventually comes in the form of two strong female role models: Sofia (Jasondra Johnson), who marries Mister’s son, Harpo (Evan Tyrone Martin), and Shug (Adrienne Walker), the singer who is Mister’s mistress and with whom Celie falls in love.
The second act, more satisfying by its very nature, focuses on Celie finding the gumption to stick up for herself, establishing her own business, dealing with the difficulties of a relationship and, in a finale that pushes more buttons than almost anything before, being reunited with those she thought she had lost. Throughout, a trio of church ladies provide intermittent chorus-like commentary.
The main problem with Stearns’ direction is that it rarely goes beyond stereotypes, so the characters don’t come across as real human beings, and quite a few of them are caricatures. Even the dialogue, especially when it’s in dialect, sounds stilted and artificial.
Stearns also fails to draw a very convincing Celie from Jeffrey. Rather than growing and changing gradually in response to her trials, tribulations and triumphs, she’s one dimensionally meek, fearful, obedient and stooped over throughout the first act. As the years pass, she seems to remain in a state of arrested development. I guess we’re supposed to view her as saintly, but her total subservience strikes me as stupidity. It would be more realistic for her to have complicated responses to Sofia’s brazenness and Shug’s attentions.
Instead, this Celie does an abrupt turnaround only when she realizes that Mister has withheld Nettie’s letters from her, and then she lashes out violently. She also finds her voice, belting out anthems like “What About Love” and “I’m Here” when a bit more control would have been more powerful. I guess the bottom line is I didn’t like this Celie or have as much sympathy for her as I should have, and that’s not a good thing.
Walker’s Shug, on the other hand, is a wonder. She has a beautiful, rich singing voice and makes the character believable as a multifaceted woman who can be vain, sensual, selfish, caring and a whole lot more, as she navigates her way through a world dominated by men. Walker also is one of the few whose aging is handled with a bit of subtlety. In general, the passage of time is marked by changes in wigs — for the women — and more-or-less period outfits, but her demeanor alters slightly, too.
The most impressive star turn comes from Johnson as Sofia (the part played by Oprah Winfrey in the film). Her acting is right on the mark, and her deep voice is not only marvelous, but also perfectly controlled. Her bluesy “Hell No” is a show stopper, and her duet with Martin’s Harpo, “Is There Anything I Can Do For You?”, is a humorous delight, even if the director arguably makes it raunchier than necessary.
While Gipson has one stunning solo as Mister, his portrayal — like Jeffrey’s Celie — goes to extremes without enough shading in between. The rest of the ensemble and evening are up and down. A low point for me was the Africa sequence with its cartoonish choreography and costumes, though perhaps we’re meant to be seeing Africa through Celie’s eyes as she reads Nettie’s letters. The high? Sofia and Shug, who are reason enough to see this version of “The Color Purple.”