Samantha Walkes as Nettie and Tara Jackson as Celie in Neptune Theatre’s production of The Color Purple, on to June 2 (and selling fast). Stoo Metz.
Neptune Theatre’s The Color Purple is a fantastic production that starts with a storm of music and emotion and never lets up.
The characters are so engaging that the audience speaks back to them and cheers them on (or hates them) in an intense, uplifting story of repression and abuse, love and triumph. On the night I went there was an immediate standing ovation and roars for key cast members.
Originally a 1982 ground-breaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, then an 1985 Steven Spielberg movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a supposedly “ugly,” young, black woman who has had two children by an abusive father and is married off to a nasty farmer with a cow thrown in to sweeten the deal.
Mister sends away Celie’s beloved sister Nettie and is verbally and physically violent to Celie. This part of the story – which begins in 1909 – is tough to watch. Thankfully, there is a warmth and life force in the music as well as a wonderful comic relief in three super-charged, gossipy, church ladies (Keisha T. Fraser, Masini McDermott and Sarah Nairne).
This Tony Award-winning, Winfrey-produced musical, which opened on Broadway in 2005 and was revived in 2015, is not a traditional Broadway musical. It is more like an operetta with continuous music and song. The music is key in carrying the emotion and story, and it is rich, complex and varied in a Grammy Award-winning score of jazz, gospel, ragtime and rhythm and blues.
The all-Black cast of 18 Canadian and Nova Scotian performers includes remarkable singers in pictorially rich, earthy choreography for rousing community numbers interspersed with tender duets and searing solos.
The Color Purple celebrates female struggle and strength and is directed for the first time by a black woman – the award-winning Kimberley Rampersad, who is also the choreographer and currently intern artistic director at the Shaw Festival.
The female leads are terrific in voice and spirit: Tara Jackson in the heartbreaking, transformational role of Celie; Janelle Cooper, an audience favourite as the high-spirited Sofia, whose cri de coeur is “hell no!,” and Karen Burthwright as Shug Avery, the spectacular, sensuous, warm-hearted club singer whose preacher father has disowned her and who sets the community abuzz with excitement. Samantha Walkes as Nettie and Deborah Castrilli as Squeak are also key.
Ryan Allen as Mister caresses Karen Burthwright as Shug Avery. (Stoo Metz)
For a story that grow out of abuse, The Color Purple has a great sensual vitality and models a positive relationship in the delightful duo of Sofia and Harpo, well-played by Andrew Broderick. These “good” characters have a passionate chemistry.
Ryan Allen, in the difficult role of Mister, steers this hard man towards the light and moves the audience in a soul-searing performance of a powerful song of penance and redemption.
Lifting up the song is a great band led by musical director Sean Mayes: Joy Brown, keyboard; Jody Lyne, trumpet and keyboard; Marlowe (Bruno) Smith, bass; Matthew Machanda, percussion, and Nicole Auger, reeds.
With this cast and band The Color Purple would fly off the page without a set. However, the design deeply enriches the experience. Dora Award-winning set and costume designer Tamara Marie Kucheran creates a simple, flexible set of worn, louvered, gothic, church windows. Her costumes and Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting operatic thematically in a voyage from darkness to light, from drab browns to hot colour. The final, light bath of purple against Celie’s orange costume is a perfection of complementary colour expressing joy.
The Color Purple fills the head with song and the best of the human spirit as it ends like a prayer.
Neptune is the first regional company to produce the play in Canada. There is a Bell Aliant Pay-What-You-Can performance Tuesday, May 28, 7:30 p.m. (The original PWYC April was cancelled due to actor illness and those lined up offered tickets to another show.) Throughout the run audiences may donate to Alice House.
The Neptune Theatre Foundation is partnering with the 1588 Barrington Building Preservation Society to raise funds to revitalize The Khyber, which will be called the Turret Arts Space. Partial proceeds from the May 30 performance go to the society, which needs to raise $3.5 million. Tickets are online under the menu item fundraiser (https://1588society.ca/color-purple/). Other special performances are listed online (neptunetheatre.com). Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 902-429-7070 or toll-free 1-800-565-7345, or in person at the box office, 1593 Argyle St.
A community explosion of sound and movement in The Color Purple, with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. (Stoo Metz)