Sweetness Through Unbearable Cruelty: “The Color Purple”

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Lovely Hoffman in The Color Purple. Photo by Glenn Perry Photography

Presented by Speakeasy Stage Company
Based on the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros/Amblin Entertainment motion picture of the same name
Book by Marsha Norman
Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Musical direction by Nicholas James Connell
Choreography by Christian Bufford

January 10 – February 8, 2014
Stanford Calderwood Pavilion
Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont St
Boston, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

Two Disclaimers:
1. Brief nudity is used to abruptly symbolize the stark differences between the lives of Shug and Celie. Prudes should stay at home.
2. This is a musical predominantly about Black women. The only role White people play are as silent, historically accurate oppressors. Racists and sexists won’t enjoy themselves either.

(Boston) The Color Purple is exquisite. It is a tour deforce presentation of musical theatre at its finest. With only one small hiccup, this production achieves greatness on the stage. Run, do not walk, as fast as you are able and get tickets to this show. Do it.

Purple borrows from the novel and the movie of the same name. It follows Celie’s tragic life from girlhood to adulthood. She loses her babies, her sister, and her personhood to the abusive men around her. In what appear to be small miracles, she gains them all back again. This is a story about the persistence of love for a woman who is refused it because she is passive, poor, black and “ugly.”

The women of the cast are outstanding. Carolyn Saxon (Church Soloist, et al), Aubin Wise (Nettie), Valerie Houston (Sofia) and Crystin Gilmore (as the scalding hot Shug Avery) tear up the stage with their passion and vim. They did not hold back and their audience on Sunday greatly appreciated it.

For all of the fire of the other cast members burning up the stage, still waters run deep in Lovely Hoffman’s portrayal of Celie. Hoffman’s work on the stage is near flawless. Hoffman imbues Celie with a kindness, and gentility that the other characters clearly lack and desperately need. Her characterization matches both Walker’s novel and the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg. Yet, Hoffman transcends both of the materials of origin to make Celie her own.

Hoffman’s voice wails exquisitely as Celie suffers. The versatility of her voice is impressive. Her capacity to inspire empathy is inspiring.

The gentlemen of Purple were also fantastic (lest one think I’m forgetting them). Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Mister) was terrifying but also lent his role a humanity that is not immediately evident in the source materials. Parent paints Mister as man so embittered by life that he is no longer capable of joy or tenderness. He enables the audience to sympathize with Mister, a task not easily done.

Unfortunately, Parent’s performs Purple’s one hiccup. Mister’s redemption song, the aptly titled, “Mister Song,” does not flow with the rest of the musical. Parent’s performance was excellent so I do not blame him. The direction by Paul Daigneault was excellent for all other parts of the production. The musicians lead by Nicholas James Connell follow the cast like a dream. It is not immediately apparent why “Mister Song” didn’t work. I suggest that it was a fluke of that afternoon and nothing more.

Speakeasy’s production of The Color Purple is pretty much perfect. More important than its examples of fine talent, Purple tells the story of women – not strong women, or brave women but women as people. There need to be more stories told in the public sphere in which women get to be nothing more or less than exactly who they are. Bravo to Speakeasy for their excellent production! Bravo, again, for taking this risk!

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