By Stana Milanovich
April Nixon as "Shug" and Gabrielle Jackson as "Celie" in The Color Purple at Greenway Court Theatre
Photo by Darrett Sanders
Do you know how lucky you are? The Color Purple Musical at the Greenway Court Theater doesn't leave for another two weeks, so you have through December 9th to get a ticket! While the Broadway show earned an impressive 11 Tony nominations on its first run, and won Best Revival in 2016, Jeffrey Polk's direction and choreography as well as the musical direction of Patrick Gandy yield great rewards in this small and intimate Hollywood space.
Here the staging might be superior to Broadway, as the space brings the performance right up against the audience, and, if you are in the front row, perhaps right into your lap. Occasionally surrounding and at times confrontational, it allows for a more immersive experience. This effect is helped by the five piece band that gives live accompaniment, and when the set is opened up, accurately portrays a juke joint band. The stage is all woods, etching a church, a simple house, a bar/dance hall, and easily shifting to Africa in the second act. Benches twist about to become pews, combine to an elevated stage, or cleverly create a bath. Echoing the soft wood, the costumes have an almost exclusively muted palette of yellows, browns, and washed out blue. White is used as the color of illness and injury, with reds and pinks only appearing on the person of everyone's desire, or when they contemplate her. In perhaps the only negative to the space, there is a slight tendency for the very strong vocal performances to feel a bit overmiked, underscored by the few occasions where key dialog is overshadowed by singing, but this is a small quibble for a very well sung whole.
If you've read the book and seen the movie, you might be wondering what more a musical could add, or indeed, how a musical could adequately approach such painful subject matter. The answers are surprisingly a lot, and mainly by eliding much of the violence and singing the uplift. When the main character Celie, played by Gabrielle Jackson, first appears, exceedingly young and excessively pregnant, she sings and plays a clapping game with her sister Nettie, played by Elizabeth Adabale. The focus is on their sustaining love for each other, which will carry throughout the story, and while the wonderfully comic and brilliantly sung Church Lady Greek Chorus condemns Celie for a sinner and speculates, it isn't until deep in the second act that Celie expresses a word of anger at her Pa (Otis Easter) whose repeated rapes gave her the two children he then stole away. In this, the play is frankly blessed by the redemptive quality of Jackson's smile,and the hope which shines like a beacon from her face. This makes the second act all the more painful when it disappears and she briefly loses the faith that gave her life meaning leaving Adabale's character in the second act to rise to the challenge of providing a reflection of that smile and hope, until it too is erased in violence. It is a hard scrabble to self-knowledge that truly returns Jackson's smile later on, a bit worn but richer in experience, a transition the actress handles with skill and awareness. "I'm Here", Jackson's pivotal moment, is truly earned and after Celie's many trials, truly poignant and sung to draw tears.
April Nixon as "Shug" and The Company of The Color Purple
Photo by Darrett Sanders
As the woman on everybody's lips, literally, April Nixon sinks her teeth into Shug Avery and thankfully doesn't let go for the duration of the play. It requires real presence to maintain a character presaged to the audience with so much speculation, particularly when her first real appearance is as an invalid (barring a silent plea to her preacher father which unfortunately undercuts the power of that introduction), but Nixon's Avery does not disappoint. It's easy to see why both Mister and Celie are fascinated with her, and when Nixon tears into "Push Da Button" she owns the stage, every secondary character, and the audience, and rightfully so. It is a scene which emphasizes the skills of the entire cast as all characters are uniquely pulled into her web with clear delight. Nixon's duets with Jackson are truly moving and their deep but flawed love believable.
One of the specific things the musical manages to do which the book and the movie, perhaps rightly, do not, is to emphasize Mister's redemption. In the background of other mediums, here you cannot help but witness in addition to his cruelty Mister's painful love of Shug, his bewilderment in the face of almost any healthy relationship, and his struggle to vindicate himself before he acknowledges an active need to change. In part, this can be put down to the skills of Aaron Braxton (Mister) and Ernest Carter (Old Mister), who make us believe. Certainly "Mister's Song/Celie's Curse" would be a significantly more difficult transition in lesser hands.
A powerful secondary character portrayed with skill, Dominique Kent as Sofia owns the stage every time she steps onto it. Sofia's forthright nature is a relief and contrast to Celie's quiet resignation, and the wound when Sofia is briefly silenced is definitive, rippling through the production. Her crackling return coincides with Celie's reach to freedom and her surging joy in that moment echoes in the audience. This is a well played character. Sofia's relationship with Harpo, manifest with an endearing sweetness by Jeremy Whatley, gives us several moments of pure delight, not the least of which is the song "Any Little Thing". Briefly Kent's foil, Rachel Sara Mount as Squeak perfectly holds her own, depicting her character with real vim and definitive style.
Elizabeth Adabale as "Nettie" and Gabrielle Jackson as "Celie" in The Color Purple
Photo by Darrett Sanders
Obviously, despite the uplift, the subject matter clearly indicates this is a musical for older teens and up, and it is worth noting that while much of the violence occurs offstage, there are several difficult moments that occur on.
Word of mouth is already out about the strength of this production, so grab a seat at one of the remaining six shows. Because it's Hollywood, it's beautiful, and you're here.
The Color Purple runs at Greenway Court Theatre thru Dec. 9.
Book by Marsha Norman
Music & Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
Directed & Choreographed by Jeffrey Polk
Musical Direction by Patrick Gandy