Color Purple musical is masterful, moving

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Michael Toscano
Shayla Simmons gives a powerhouse performance as Celie’s glamorous friend Shug in The Color Purple at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.
Photo courtesy of Toby’s Dinner Theater

I’m not quite sure where it came from, but as the applause began to die down at the conclusion of a recent performance of the musical The Color Purple at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., I wrote one final word in my notebook: redemption. That was unusual.

My eyes were moist. That’s not entirely unusual. I am a sentimental person and susceptible to the evocations of music and story.

But I have seen this musical several times before, including with the Broadway cast. I knew what to expect. Aware of the nuts and bolts of the unwieldy story-telling and the pop-based core of the music, I should not have been moved yet again.

But I was — and you will be, too. If not, you might want to check for a pulse.

A harrowing tale

Spanning four decades, this is the story of black women in the South in the first half of the last century, centered on the life of Celie (played by Dayna Quincy).

By the age of 14, Celie has birthed two children, who have been taken from her. She is sold into a marriage with the abusive Mister (Mark Anthony Hall), who separates her from her loving sister Nettie (Jessica Coleman), who disappears.

The show takes us on a harrowing tale of sexism, physical and sexual abuse, racism and violence. But by the stirring finale, the characters, good and bad alike, have achieved a level of salvation and deliverance.

In fact, the various stories are so neatly tied up at the conclusion that it should shred credibility. Yet — and much of this is a credit to Toby’s top-notch cast — it all seems believable and affecting.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, with a strong nod to the Steven Spielberg movie, the stage version of The Color Purple was a smash hit on Broadway with music, lyrics and book from people you have never heard of. (Music/lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray. Book: Marsha Norman. Now you have heard of them.)

It’s a mix of life-affirming messaging, sketchy story-telling that lunges through the years, and emotive, at times rousing, music. The score is based in pop with an overlay of regional themes (the story is based in Macon County, Ga.), gospel, blues, and the kind of power singing that usually relies more on lungs than heart. There is a sequence in the second act that focuses on African dance, and the music there is heavily percussive and hypnotic.

The music may not always be subtle, but it is stirring and works its magic. The story-telling is not subtle, to say the least. But the musical performances draw us close enough to the characters that the often weak dialogue and head-snapping plot jumps can be overlooked.

The men are either evil or ineffectual, and the women are either saintly or wise in their degradation. The storylines move so rapidly that character development just seems to happen, whether we know how and why or not. But we’re sad when we’re supposed to be, and happy when appropriate, just the same.

Directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey move things along so quickly that we don’t have time to dwell on the sketchy writing. We just let it wash over us, riding the wave of music.

Some dialogue scenes are under-directed, however, and are flatter than need be. For instance, it should be traumatic drama as a favorite character, Theresa Cunningham’s Sofia (the part Oprah played in the film), is brutalized. But the scene is perfunctorily played and the moment is lost.

Magnificent singing

Dayna Quincy and Mark Hall were both with the national tour of The Color Purple, and their care for the material shows in two marvelous performances.

Quincy is riveting as downtrodden Celie, a living portrait of non-existent self-esteem. But as Celie finds the power within her, Quincy transforms before our eyes.

Her voice grows in strength and tone, her haggard and tense face and body finally relaxing and resonating with joy. Quincy’s voice is a magnificent instrument, used to full effect in the popular anthem, “I’m Here,” close to the finale.

With Toby’s troublesome sound system muffling much of the singing with off-centered, badly mixed and muddy music from the live band, and faulty microphones hampering vocal performances in quieter moments, it is especially rewarding to hear Quincy holding the audience rapt with the heart-wrenching and plaintive “Somebody’s Gonna Love You.” Singing with minimal musical accompaniment, Quincy has the room to herself to mix love and pain and hope when Celie’s baby is taken from her.

Hall’s physicality is a feat of story-telling all by itself. In early scenes, he radiates power and authority. He never walks; he strides, riding crop in hand. As Mister starts to age, Hall’s movements become more serpentine, as evil cunning replaces physical strength as a source of domination. And his powerful baritone shows expressive range in several numbers.

Adding considerably to the success of this production is Shayla Simmons as Shug, the sensuous saloon singer and Mister’s mistress, who is integral to Celie’s blossoming. Simmons’s voice is liquid gold, used to stunning effect in “Too Beautiful for Words,” a lovely ballad that’s all the more effective because she provides beauty in the midst of moral squalor and ugliness.

And in non-singing moments, where this show is weakest, Simmons puts such life into her acting that Shug’s contradictions make sense. We know her, just as we know Quincy’s Celie and Hall’s Mister.

When Quincy and Simmons perform the moving duet “What About Love?” it’s musical storytelling and intense character development at its best, as well as a musical highlight.

There are too many musical moments that are either emotionally compelling or joyous fun to list here, although mention must be made of choreographer Anwar Thomas’ work.

The highlights are “Push Da Button,” the raucous and bluesy road-house number in Act One, and the “African Homeland” sequence that opens Act Two.

“Push Da Button” is gritty and earthy, all sweaty energy as the ensemble enjoys physical pleasure in movement. “African Homeland” is a swirl of lithe and supple dance set to the throbbing rhythms of African drums — a celebration of community expressed in both synchronized movement and individual gyration and leaping. Diverse in approach, both scenes are show stoppers.

This is a genuine crowd-pleaser. Except for some lethargy in a few Act Two scenes, this production of The Color Purple is compelling, delightful and emotionally exhilarating.

The Color Purple continues through Nov. 11 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia. The show runs every day, except Mondays.

The doors open at 6 p.m. for dinner prior to evening shows Monday through Saturday and at 5 p.m. for the Sunday evening performance. Doors open for matinee/brunch performances at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Sundays.

All-you-can-eat buffets (including a sundae bar) are served prior to every performance. Following the meal, evening performances begin at 8 p.m. except Sundays, when show time is 7 p.m. Matinee performances begin at 12:30 p.m.

Reservations are required. Ticket prices, which include the meal but not sodas or specialty drinks, range from $49 to $54 for adults, depending on which performance is selected. Tickets for children 12 and under cost $35.50. Performers, who also serve as waiters, will expect tips.

There is ample, free parking on the premises.

For reservations and information, call 1-800-88TOBYS (888-6297). You may also visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Michael Toscano is the Beacon’s theater critic.