BY SANDY STAGGS
Let me first say that this production is outstanding, even epic, and the best musical at Centre Stage maybe since Dreamgirls.
Topping off a transformation of Upstate theatrical stages with BIPOC actors in leading roles (SCCT’s The Sound of Music, Sister Act in Spartanburg, and Mauldin’s Something Rotten!) and African-American stories and playwrights (Barbecue at The Market Theatre in Anderson and the upcoming In The Heights in Mauldin and Bootycandy in Spartanburg), this much-anticipated production of Centre Stage’s The Color Purple is the epitome of the black experience.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Alice Walker and the 1985 film adaptation with Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple won a 2016 Tony award for Best Musical Revival (with a 2017 stop in Greenville on its national tour), this version directed by award-winning Clark E. Nesbitt is inspired by that revival: staged simply and effectively with almost a bare stage: a series of wooden platforms and acting planes, and replete with wooden chairs hanging on the side stages.
It is indeed a miracle that Centre Stage was able to cast an all-African-American ensemble in this time of Covid-19, with so many of the pool of BIPOC actors pursuing other projects, and in the shadow of one the pandemic’s greatest causalities – the cancellation of Spartanburg Little Theatre’s The Color Purple in January.
Celie is played by Niecy Blues, who is just darling as our tiny heroine.
Surviving rape and incest, a lifetime of consternation about her “ugly” appearance, an abusive, forced marriage, and separation from her sister Nettie (Neshia Milton), Blues gives an award-worthy performance as Celie, and sings some of the most potent numbers I have seen all season: “Somebody Gonna Love You,” “What About Love” with the dynamite Kirsten Brock as the heathen singer Shug, and the heartbreaking “I’m Here.”
James Hester, with an enticing deep basso voice, is Mister, Celie’s husband and abuser, while Jerrell Dean plays hapless son, Harpo, and Cassie Francis is everyone’s favorite character, the strong-willed Sofia and shows off her vocal gusto in the defiant “Hell No!”
Francis also delivers the knockout punch of the season in a hilarious (not condoning violence here) upper-cut of Harpo’s new squeeze Squeak, played by Nykila Norman. To be honest, I hardly understood a word that Norman said in her Squeak voice but her shrill alone was enough to solicit laughter from the audience.
Again Oprah’s Sofia (“You told Harpo to beat me?”) has always been my go to character in The Color Purple film, but in the musical, the church ladies steal the show. All hail the Greek Chorus trio of Miriam Burgess, Alexis Robertson and Tanisha Brawner as the Church Ladies who are in most of the proceedings singing gospel and spirituals, and always dressed for Sunday School with beautiful hats and waving their hankies as if they were praising the Lord.
Upstate acting stalwart Brian Reeder plays Mister’s well-to-do father with aplomb and humor only he can imbue. And the rest of the incredible ensemble includes Breosha Jeter, Kelseigh Redmon, Daniel Hoilett, Winston Gantt and James Hall.
Nesbitt’s direction is seamless, timeless, and often thrilling. This is a hearty 2 ½ hour show but it never feels like it, especially with dazzling scenes like the African flashback and the jukejoint numbers with dynamic choreography by the great Michael Cherry, and beautiful musical cohesiveness of this marvelous score that traverse multiple genres, directed by Michael Young.
And four church lady hats off to costume designer Linette Hodge, particularly for her fashions in the Nettie in Africa sequence
Scenic design is by Laura Nicholas, Lighting by Bess Park, Props master is Tosha Andrews, scenic artist is Lindsay Donovan, and sound engineer is Eric Mills.
The Color Purple has a Book by Marsha Norman and Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Stephen, and Willis Bray. This is a very succinct cutting of the novel and the lesbian relationship is not “unexplored” as in the film version. And to the two women who walked out if the performance immediately after “the Kiss,” Didn’t see you the movie? There is a kiss in the film and at the end, Celie is literally “wearing the pants” (and thriving with her pants). Perhaps they had an emergency or another engagement, but the timing was suspicious.
The Color Purple continues for one more weekend at Centre Stage, 501 River Street in Greenville. For tickets, visit centrestage.org or call (864) 233-6733.