Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Color Purple
Set mainly in Georgia and taking place over four decades in the early part of the 20th century, the plot follows Celie, a young black woman who is only 14 and pregnant with her second child when we first meet her. Shortly thereafter, her father marries her off to Mr. Johnson, or "Mister" as Celie calls him. He says she's "ugly," but he needs a wife to help him around the house and with his children. He was also hoping to marry Celie's younger sister Nettie, whom Celie has a very close relationship with. Once Mr. Johnson sends Nettie away because she rebuffs his advances, Celie no longer has anyone close to her to confide with. Sad and alone, and feeling like she's been abandoned by her whole family and her God, she finds some hope in the close friendships she forms with two women who come into her life: Sofia, who marries Johnson's son Harpo; and Shug Avery, the woman Mr. Johnson is in love with. These relationships, and the hope that Nettie is still alive, give Celie the strength to overcome the obstacles in her life, to find forgiveness from those who have done her wrong, and to realize that she and the world are beautiful.
Marsha Norman's book does a great job touching upon the key moments in Walker's novel, and the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray helps to portray the journey that Celie takes. However, the show sometimes comes across as not much more than a series of scenes strung together, with some confusion around changes in time and place. The score is a mixture of gospel, blues and jazz, and it has a few stand-out songs. The decision to give Celie very little to sing until she finds her voice–and the power she holds–in the second act is a smart one, but that also deprives the main character of what we come to expect in a musical: having the audience hear their inner thoughts, feelings, and dreams in song.
The Phoenix Theatre production is modeled on the recent scaled-down revival of the show that director John Doyle presented in London, on Broadway, and on tour. This version, under Daryl D. Brook's impressive direction, works extremely well in the small, intimate setting of the Hormel theatre to provide an immediate connection between the audience, Celie, and the other characters. Douglas Clarke's set, which is composed of platforms and walls made of wooden slats, echoes the bleakness in Celie's life, but it doesn't help to fill in any of the gaps in the book concerning the change of locales or the passage of time. Rueben D. Echoles' costumes are period and character appropriate, and Ashton Corey's lighting design works well to echo the bleakness as well as the hopeful moments. Musical director Kevin White delivers a rich sound from the small band and the cast.
The cast excel in delivering rich, nuanced, and passionate performances. As Celie, Andrea Fleming's portrayal, just like the character, is small, controlled, and quiet at first, with downcast eyes and darting looks, then becomes bigger and blossoms once Sophia and Shrug come into her life. Fleming also beautifully captures Celie's growth and the changes, from teenage years to mid-50s. Her solo, "I'm Here," explodes with power, emotion and passion. It's a moving and inspiring performance of this moving and inspiring character.
Shug Avery is a woman who is in complete control of her life and never lets anyone tell her what to do, and Meka King is superb as such a powerful, passionate, and free-spirited woman. Her performance of the raunchy "Push Da Button" is just as good as the tender "What about Love?" Shaunice Maudlyn Alexander is excellent as the fierce and defiant Sofia, the woman who first shows Celie that she is beautiful, doesn't have to be subservient to a man, and that she has her own inner strength. Noah Lee Hayes is very good as the show's main protagonist, Mister, who, like Celie, also grows and changes throughout the show. Jonice Bernard is perfect as the hopeful Nettie, with a beautiful singing voice and strong stage presence. Blu does a great job as Harpo, portraying the strong feelings and love he has for Sophia, and Jari Haile is fun as Squeak, the young girl Harpo finds himself attracted to. Also, Savannah Alfred, Jacqueline Castillo, and Yarissa Tiara Millan are excellent as the three Church Ladies who comment on and question the actions of many of the characters in the show.
The musical and Walker's novel touch upon several historical social issues, including racial and spousal violence and the equal and fair treatment of women. While there has been a lot of improvement in the rights and treatment of both women and minorities since the time this story takes place, there is, unfortunately, still an enormous amount of racial bias and violence toward minorities today, which makes The Color Purple an impactful and still timely musical.
The Color Purple runs through May 1, 2022, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Book by Marsha Norman, based on Alice Walker's novel and the Amblin/Warner Brothers film
Cast (in order of appearance):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.