When a stage musical is based on a very popular movie, in turn based on a very popular novel, it is often almost impossible to accept the new format, actors, and plot adaptations as genuine. However, when I attended Workshop Theatre’s presentation of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, I had no problem separating the live performance from the film. This was because the stage production was so fantastic. For those not familiar with the film plot, The Color Purple is a coming-of-age story about Celie, an African-American girl (Devin Anderson) in the early 1900s who is forced by her father to marry “Mister” (Shawn Logan) in exchange for some livestock. Mister mistreats her, abuses her, forces her to wait on him and all of his sons hand and foot, and breaks off all communication between Celie and her sister/best friend Nettie (Kanika Moore.) This naturally causes Celie to feel completely alone in this world, and hopeless that she will never see Nettie again or ever know what it’s like to feel happy, safe, and secure. The mirror image to this story line is that of Sofia (Michelle Rivera) who is married to Mister’s son Harpo (Bobby Rogers). Sofia is a very strong-willed woman who refuses to let any man abuse her or tell her what to do and, in fact, is the abuser to her husband. However, when she leaves Harpo (ending up as a maid for a white family) she finds that her temper lands her in jail. When she is released, she is a shell of the woman she once was, and has become docile and closed off.
The other influence on Celie’s life comes in the form of a sassy singer named Shug Avery (Katrina Blanding). She is a boozy, juke joint singer, and the object of Mister’s desire. Her character reflects the independence that Celie so desperately needs, but also reflects the sadness of living a lonely life. All of the performances are, for lack of a better word, riveting. Although they do not really look 14 years-old, Devin Anderson (Celie) and Kanika Moore (Nettie) truly inspire both through their touching and playful scenes together and their beautiful harmonies during their duet. Devin Anderson, however, does a spectacular job guiding the plot along through Celie’s life. As Sofia, Michelle Rivera performs at a level that could rival Oprah’s depiction of the film role. Her transition from strong, loud, and independent matriarch to beaten down and muted victim was handled brilliantly by the actress. As Shug, Katrina Blanding seamlessly handles the role of a gin-soaked club singer turned responsible married woman, and the scene between her and Celie where she helps Celie discover her femininity is performed with both sensitivity and effectiveness. Another performance worth mentioning is that of Shawn Logan as Mister. From the character you love to hate as the abusive and controlling husband, to becoming a submissive pleaser to Celie, his performance perfectly illustrates the traits of shameful, funny, and charming.
All of the aforementioned kudos would not have been possible without the stellar direction of Jocelyn Sanders, beautiful musical direction of Roland Haynes, Jr., and energetic and inspirational choreography of Barbara Howse-Diemer. Unlike straight plays where there is one director, musicals are unique because of the combined visions of these three roles. In The Color Purple, it appeared that all three of these brilliant directors came together and shared a vision that paints a masterpiece of sadness, inspiration, humor, and humanity. Typically in big musicals with huge casts, one’s eye will directly be drawn to a weak link or “dead zone” in the cast. It is always a nice surprise to not be able to find one. Additionally, hats off to the costume designer Alexis Doktor specifically for the wonderful African costumes that took the audience to a whole new place, time, and feeling of joy. Unfortunately, the one African scene where the village is attacked by some sort of outside forces was very unclear. When the members of the tribe ran off, the sound effects were muddy. Had I not seen the movie and known it was an invasion, I would have thought they were running from an oncoming storm. In fact, as has been the problem with other musicals, some of the dialogue and songs suffered from the lack of microphones. Also, the show does run very long at almost 3 hours. There are several extraneous scenes towards the end with songs that simply delay the wonderful ending we are all waiting for. However, that is my issue with Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, and not with anybody connected with this production. Jocelyn Sanders weaves together a beautiful tapestry that even Alice Walker (the original novelist) would be proud of. The Color Purple is a show that will quite literally make you laugh, cry, sing, dance, and cheer.
~ Stephen Ingle
Show Dates: March 20-24 & 27-30
Show Times: 8:00 p.m. except March 24, which is a 3:00 p.m. matinee
Prices: $22 for adults, $20 for seniors/military, $16 for students, $12 for children
Contact the box office at 803-799-6551 for ticket information, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com.