“The Color Purple” blossoms at Signature
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple is a story of triumph in which a young Black woman overcomes seemingly impossible circumstances, including abusive relationships, racism and personal tragedy, to grow into a beautiful, independent woman.
Stephen Spielberg directed the 1985 film adaptation, starring Whoopi Goldberg as the protagonist Celie, and Oprah Winfrey as her friend Sophia. Twenty years later, a musical based on the book and movie ran on Broadway for three years; in 2015 it won a Tony Award for best revival.
“The Color Purple: A New Musical,” a film version of the musical presented by Winfrey, will debut in movie theaters in December.
This fall, Arlington’s Signature Theatre is offering a production of the musical that warms the heart.
While the novel relates Celie’s story as a series of letters, and the film adaptation does so via an epic narrative, the musical by Marsha Norman relies on music to drive the story.
Varied styles of music
Different songs are written in different styles, representing the rich and varied contributions of Black American composers.
“Mysterious Ways,” sung brilliantly by the company, represents gospel; “Push Da Button,” sung with energy by Danielle J. Summons, represents rhythm and blues, and “Miss Celie’s Pants,” sung and danced beautifully by Nova Y. Payton, represents swing.
The gospel element is particularly strong, as the play ends with the company singing a resounding “Amen.” A live orchestra, conducted by keyboardist Angie Benson, enhances the musical experience.
The cast is extremely talented, both in terms of acting and voice. Payton convincingly portrays Celie’s journey from lack of self-confidence to self-worth in voice, movement and gesture.
Torrey Linder is equally moving as Celie’s initially brutal husband, Mister, who also evolves through the course of the show to a form of redemption.
Frenchie Davis, as Sofia, is a standout character who also reveals two sides, first opposing and later encouraging Celie’s growing independence.
Danielle J. Summons is compelling as the passionate Shug Avery, a character who helps Celie in her journey to self-worth. The two actresses have an unusual chemistry as their characters bond over their personal tragedies.
Kaiyla Gross, as Celie’s deceased sister Nettie, is similarly excellent.
Clever, effective set
The scenic design by Tony Cisek is a wonder. It at first seems to be a spartan porch with a few chairs. However, the siding of the house opens periodically to show scenes from the past, or in far-away places. Coupled with lighting effects, this is extremely effective in conveying different times and places.
The show is admirable for its convincing portrayals of the hardship of the lives of characters caught in the racism and lack of opportunity in the South in the first half of the 20th century.
However, the show is also universal in its themes of triumph over despair, yearning for love, self-discovery, and the quest for self-worth, exemplified during the course of the show as purple blooms appearing on a once-barren tree.
There is much discussion of the search for God, ranging from despairing comments, to the notion of God imbued with love and with nature itself. As the preacher in the play says, “No one knows what the Lord has in store for us.”
While this show, which runs at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Virginia, through October 9, is extraordinarily compelling, it also contains a number of disturbing situations and mature themes that may be inappropriate for young children.
Performances are Tuesday through Sunday evenings, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $40 to $108.
For more details and tickets, go to sigtheatre.org or call the box office at (703) 820-9771.