(Above: The Color Purple at Paper Mill Playhouse; Photo by Jerry Dalia; Center: Adrianna Hicks as Celie; Background from left to right: Darnell Abraham as Adam and N’Jameh Camara as Nettie.)
She had us at “Dear God.”
Celie, the compelling protagonist of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, “The Color Purple,” leads us through four decades across America’s rural South (and Africa via her sister Nettie’s letters) in a bittersweet journey of abuse, abandonment, perseverance, survival, redemption, and most importantly, breaking through the past into joy and emancipation.
Powerful, universal, timely stuff. The message of surviving abuse is fresh and modern, especially in this era of #metoo #timesup inequality.
So when the Paper Mill Playhouse kicked off its 80th anniversary season last week with the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical revival based on Walker’s 1982 novel (and the 1985 Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment film), it was a must!
Under its artistic director, Mark S. Hoebee, the Paper Mill has become one of the country’s leading regional theaters…with a Tony Award to prove it! And after expansive summer renovations, underpinned by new auditorium seating, it makes for a great metaphor: in its original 2005-2008 Broadway musical version, despite a dozen Tony Award nominations, “The Color Purple” lacked the poetry and spirituality that was central to Walker’s vision.
So they brought in a fixer: John Doyle.
The Scottish director’s success reaches far and wide. Take Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Carmen Jones,” the African American musical full of racial politics that hadn’t been staged in NYC since the 1940s! Ripe for an off-Broadway remount, they called on Doyle. And it was a sold-out triumph.
Doyle’s method strips-down frivolity to essential minimalism, which earned him two 2016 Tony Awards when he re-staged “The Color Purple” in the same version seen here as the current stop on its North American tour.
The scenery of crossed boards was hung with simple wooden chairs used as weapons, tools, or furniture. Only a handful of props appeared, such as linens, straw baskets for laundry and knitting, and African textiles and woven baskets to represent Nettie’s Olinka missionary tales.
Jane Cox’s lighting set the moods such as a sultry incandescent red for Harpo’s Juke Joint. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes reflected 1930’s Georgia/Tennessee rural garb with straw hats, men’s suiting separates, and women’s cotton dresses in dusty, earthy tones, followed by Act II’s 1940s boldly-colored, cosmopolitan styles of Celie’s pants-making enterprise.
(Above: The Color Purple at Paper Mill Playhouse; Photo by Matthew Murphy; Adrianna Hicks as Celie, and The Company of The Color Purple.)
On musical direction, Darryl Archibald’s lively orchestra showcased jazz, gospel, ragtime, soul and blues compositions of the Grammy-winning score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
The company’s key ensemble transitioned from church-goers to towns-folks to laborers from Marsha Norman’s book. A classically-modeled Greek chorus of three church ladies (Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West) provided seamless, upbeat exposition and narration.
(Above: The Color Purple at Paper Mill Playhouse; Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade; Adrianna Hicks as Celie.)
Celie was played with bite by Adrianna Hicks, which included a show-stopping “I’m Here” aria in her gorgeous, soaring, lyric soprano.
(Above: The Color Purple at Paper Mill Playhouse; Photo by Jerry Dalia; Gavin Gregory as Mister.)
Gavin Gregory’s Mister, played with swagger and finesse (and a bullwhip!), blew the roof off the house with his resonant, booming bass in Act II’s “Celie’s Curse” soliloquy.
(Above: The Color Purple at Paper Mill Playhouse; Photo by Jerry Dalia; Carrie Compere as Sophia and The Company of The Color Purple.)
Carrie Compere’s Sofia was suffused with big personality and drive. Her gorgeous mezzo complimented Jay Donnell as Harpo in the duet, “Any Little Thing.” Despite limited stage time, Donnell, N’Jameh Camara’s grounded Nettie, and Erica Durham’s soubrette Squeak made lasting impressions.
(Above: The Color Purple at Paper Mill Playhouse; Photo by Jerry Dalia; Carla R. Stewart as Shug Avery and The Company of The Color Purple.)
Shug Avery — styled in finger waves by Charles G. LaPointe’s excellent hair and wig mastery — was played with verve by Carla R. Stewart. Her rousing “Push Da Button” would’ve made the original Queen Honeybee proud!
By the final “The Color Purple” reprise, the company’s genuine, onstage chemistry brought Walker’s characters to great life.
Fittingly enough, the renovated production complimented the renovated theater, both polished to perfection.
“The Color Purple” runs through October 21, Wednesdays to Sundays, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. Major support for the show is provided by the PSEG Foundation. The Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2018–2019 season is proudly sponsored by Investors Bank.