Thursday, April 5, 2012

Celebration Theatre's Sensational The Color Purple

Cesili Williams and La Toya London. Photo: Barry Weiss

By now you’re sure to have heard the buzz about the gloriously triumphant, rip your heart out musical The Color Purple that Celebration Theatre has so skillfully crafted on its small stage. I was afraid I would miss this production, but thanks to an unexpected schedule change, I was able to see it… and halleluiah, I am glad I did.

Without reservation I concur that it is an absolutely exquisite production that inhabits Celebration’s black box space as no production has before. It is impeccably directed by Michael Matthews who, with an electrifying company of actors, creates a profound connection with the audience. The complexity of the relationships and the actors’ emotional investment in the story brought many an audience member to tears throughout the night. But what was so wonderful about the tears wasn’t that they came predictably out of the painful turns in the story, but that they were more simply born out of witnessing the resilience of the human spirit; those simple moments of grace that lift you up by their very rightness.

The 17-member cast swells with talent. Michael A. Shepperd’s menacing portrayal of Mister, Terrence Spencer’s conflicted Harpo, and a dynamic Corey Jones in dual roles as Celie’s Pa and the African Chief are only several of the rich performances among the men. La Toya London hits every mark as the incandescent Shug Avery and Constance Jewell Lopez is as sassy a Sophia as they come. She also gets the best and most well-deserved laugh of the night, though the Greek chorus of gossips played by Sixx Carter, Lorie V. Moore and Brittney S. Wheeler adds plenty of humor and raised eyebrow commentary.

But it’s the sisters, Celie (Cesili Williams) and Nettie (Kelly M. Jenrette), who are the shining heart of The Color Purple’s story, for it is their unbreakable bond of love that allows everyone to be transformed – actors and audience alike…and these two women are grace and radiance in action. Perhaps it’s more affecting because of how close you are to the stage, or perhaps it’s that the story is so very human. I like to think that it’s one of those elusive moments you wait for in the theatre, when everything aligns perfectly and magic is born.

Stephen Gifford’s set design uses simple but elegant touches to create the feel of a much larger playing area, such as burlap covered walls and leafy tree branches that envelop the audience. He encases musical director Gregory Nabours and his band behind wooden slats in their own private juke joint where they let loose on Brian Morales’ tasty orchestrations of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s songs. Janet Roston’s ambitious choreography is a study in powerfully focused movement in a limited space that never feels contained and Naila Aladdin Sanders’ costumes are earthy and vibrant.

Celebration Theatre’s The Color Purple is simply sensational. See it.

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