Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Color Purple
Theater Latté Da
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Apples in Winter and A Unique Assignment

Heather McElrath, Angela Stewart, Nubia Monks,
Lynnea Doublette, Ronnie Allen, David L. Murray,
and Angela Wildflower

Photo by Dan Norman
Theater Latté Da is dedicated to presenting musical theatre in all its permutations, from big, bustling shows like last winter's Hello, Dolly! to intimate musicals, such as last spring's six character Next to Normal to plays with music, like the recent Stones in His Pockets. Whatever variation they select, they rarely miss the mark, as evidenced by their latest production, The Color Purple, which falls into the big, bustling class and is another sky-high success.

Unlike Hello, Dolly!, however, The Color Purple is not a comic lark intent on taking us away from the aches and pains of modern life, but a heartfelt drama that tenderly but frankly depicts the wounds and degradations experienced by a poor Black woman named Celie living in rural Georgia during the first half of the twentieth century. The musical is based on the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning novel by Alice Walker, published in 1982. In 1988, Walker's book was made into a successful film directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie.

The story begins in 1909 Georgia, which means Celie is triple cursed: being born poor, suffering the abuse of the Jim Crow South, and living under the yoke of the brutal misogyny rampant in her time and place. We follow Celie's travails over the course of several decades, from a girlhood abruptly ended, up to mature womanhood, demarcated by grey hair, glasses and a slowing gait. That the story ends on a note of hope and redemption allows us to leave the theater smiling, our eyes welling up with gratitude rather than sorrow.

Still, we are not meant to dismiss the painful experiences and barriers Celie had to overcome. The Color Purple succeeds in having it both ways: offering a grueling lesson in history and empathy as a means of understanding the continuing gaps in wealth and opportunity between races and sexes, while giving testimony to the power of a resilient spirit in making progress to close those gaps.

We meet Celie when she is fourteen years old and pregnant for the second time. Her father had given away her first baby and will do the same with this one. When a widowed farmer called Mister comes around, wanting to marry Celie's younger and prettier sister Nettie, their father makes a deal for Mister to marry Celie instead. Mister's crude household includes older children from his first wife and a never-ending list of work for Celie. Mister cruelly separates Celie from Nettie and her life is a struggle, but enriched by friendships with Sofia, a tough-skinned woman who marries Mister's oldest son Harpo, and Shug Avery, a saloon singer who had been Mister's lover before making it big in Memphis, now returned to rehabilitate herself from too much hard living.

Walker's sweeping narrative is replete with coincidences and twists of fate that would do Charles Dickens proud. To condense the story into movie of reasonable length, the film sliced away some of the narrative details and the musical's book by Marsha Norman does even more so, hopping from one episode to another without accounting for the time between. That can make the story on stage sometimes feel jarring, leaving us wondering how we got to this point B from that point A. However, the addition of music and dance to express characters' feelings, and sometimes to depict the temperament of an entire community, provides more than sufficient compensation for those dramatic leaps. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray's lush score offers a cornucopia of musical styles, each well matched to its moment in the narrative.

The compression of the narrative serves the work well, but in doing so, places Celie all the more at the center of the work. Nubia Monks gives a smashing performance as Celie, convincingly expressing the immense panorama of Celie's feelings, moving with grace, and singing–well, it is hard to put into words how extraordinarily she delivers "I'm Here," expressing Celie's cathartic realization of her own worth. But right from the beginning, Monks wins us over singing a tender "Somebody Gonna Love You" to her new baby, and later, as she leads the ladies in a rousing rendition of "Miss Celie's Pants." Celie is a mammoth role that has rewarded two actors (LaChanze in the original Broadway production, Cynthia Erivo in the Broadway revival) with Tony Awards. Without doubt, Monks' performance is award-winning and one-you'll-never-forget caliber.

Monks does not work alone, however, as she is surrounded by a strong cast, including Angela Wildflower's shimmery Shug Avery, who soars with Monks in the gorgeous duet "What About Love?," brings heartfelt emotion to "Too Beautiful for Words," and leads the entire juke-joint crew in a raucous "Push da Button." David L. Murray Jr. is an effectively foreboding Mister, with a threatening lead vocal in "Big Dog," who turns, chameleon-like, into a gentleman in the presence of his beloved Shug and becoming suitably humble when he seeks to redeem himself.

Ronnie Allen ably conveys Harpo's kindness and positivity, and with Carnetha Anthony as Sofia, delivers a playfully suggestive "Any Little Thing." Anthony conveys Sofia's strong will as a woman who can be your best friend or your worst enemy, but is not quite the force of nature that Sofia is meant to be. Her delivery of "Hell No!" conveys the message–zero tolerance for physical abuse–but doesn't scorch the ground beneath her feet. Nambi Mwassa is lovely, near angelic, as Nettie, and Zola Dee is aptly simple and impulsive as Squeak. Dwight Xaveir Leslie and Dennis W. Spears both do fine work in multiple roles. As a trio of moralizing church ladies, Lynnea Doublette, Heather McElrath, and Angela Stewart are terrific, singing with jiving harmony as they gleefully express their disdain for–well, pretty much for anyone who isn't them. The audience can't get enough of them.

Eli Sherlock's stage design makes effective use of tiered rises and a surrounding patchwork of rough-hewn vertical wooden planks, suggesting the unfinished quality of buildings that furnish shelter for Celie and her community. When they part to reveal an African savannah, punctuated by a banyan tree made of those same wooden planks, the effect is wondrous. Jason Lynch and Bentley Heydt co-designed lighting that adds immensely to the tone and texture of the staging. Jarrod Barnes' costume designs, are exquisite, depicting changing styles as well as the changing fortunes of the character, accentuated by Emma Gustafson's wig, hair, and makeup design. C. Andrew's sound design blends together music, speech, and sounds of nature to create a fully realized world.

With a compelling story, a bountiful and melodic score, exceptionally strong staging, and a vibrant cast, especially in Nubia Monk's dazzling performance, The Color Purple is a show you won't want to miss.

The Color Purple runs through May 5, 2024, at Theater Latté Da, Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. This staging is a co-production with Geva Theatre Center. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-3303 or visit

Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel written by Alice Walker; Music and Lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray; Director: Daniel J. Bryant; Choreographer: Heather Beal; Music Director: Sanford Moore; Scenic Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Harrod Barnes; Lighting Co-Designers: Jason Lynch, Bentley Heydt; Lighting Design Assistant: Andrew Vance; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Wigs, Hair and Makeup Design: Emma Gustafson; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Intimacy Director: Alli St. John; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Dialect Coach: Nyaboke Momanyi; Music Supervisor: Jason Hansen; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Associate Technical Director: Eric Charlton; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Managers: Chloe Volna-Rich and Austin Schoenfelder.

Cast: Ronnie Allen (Harpo/ensemble), Carnetha Anthony (Sofia/ensemble), Zola Dee (Squeak/ ensemble), Lynnea Doublette (Church Lady/ensemble), Lamar Jefferson (Preacher/Grady/Buster/ ensemble), Dwight Xaveir Leslie (ensemble), Heather McElrath (Church Lady/ensemble), Nubia Monks (Celie), David L. Murray Jr. (Mister), Nambi Mwassa (Nettie/ensemble), Dennis W. Spears (Pa/Old Mister/ensemble), Angela Stewart (Church Lady/ensemble), Angela Wildflower (Shug Avery).