Strength Comes From Within | “The Color Purple” @ Pantages

The Color Purple (Hollywood Pantages)Saturday was a musical day, and a day for deconstruction. We started down the street from the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the The Hobgoblin Playhouse, where we saw the final production of the Chromolume Theatre (FBז״לThe Story of My Life. This was the second time we had seen the show; we saw it first in 2010. We then toddled down the street to the Pantages to see the touring company (FB) of the 2016 Revival of The Color Purple; this was another revisit, as we saw the original tour of the show back in 2008. Both of Saturday’s shows were also, essentially, deconstructed versions. Story was deconstructed out of necessity: it was part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).  Purple’s deconstruction was more of a directoral choice: this production came from the Menier Chocolate Factory (FB) in London, where director John Doyle applies a minimalist aesthetic to the production. In this case, that means no set pieces other than chairs; minimal different costumes, and suggestions for place from fabric.

I would have thought, given that this was emphasized as a deconstructed notion, that it would have been markedly different than the original. But looking back at my comments from 2008, I noted:

The sets for the show were very simple: painted scrims and simple building pieces. What was spectacular was the lighting, which provided the ability to transform the basic wood-ish floor of the Ahmanson stage into a field of crops, and African jungle, a garden. The lighting designer (Brian MacDevitt) really deserves special mention. It is rare I notice how much lighting contributes to the mood and feel of a show. This time I did.

The costumes for the show were also spectacular. Most of it was period dress of the 1910s and 1920s. Celie’s costumes, however, did a wonderful job of changing the look and sense of the actress, and conveying the sense of “ugly” that was required. I was also taken by the costumes in the African Homeland scene, which conveyed a sense of rawness without being too out in the open.

Truthfully, what I remember most about the 2008 production was the lighting: use of gobos to create wood floor effects, and the realistic and colorful costumes from the African scenes. This production was markedly different in that regard. Most of the lighting was stark; I’d say that white light was used through 75% of the show. Costumes, except for a few characters, were drab until the second act, reflecting the drab life of the characters. From what I’ve been told, the interstitial dialogue may have been cut down (although I noted back in 2008 it was mostly sung). The focus of this show was the music, and the ability of the music to tell the story. Superficialities cut away, as it were.

If you’re not familiar with the story of The Color Purple, it begins with the 1983 book of The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This was made into a motion picture in 1985. It was adapted for the theatre in 2005, with a book by Marsha Norman, and  music and lyrics by Brenda RussellAllee Willis, and Stephen Bray, all of whom were new to the musical theatre. Back in 2008, I described the story thusly:

“The Color Purple” basically tells the storie of Celie, a young black girl in the south, knocked up by her step-pseudofather twice by the age of 14, and then married off soon after to a man who beats her to get her to obey. It is the story of the love between Celie and her sister Nettie, the story of the relationships in Celie’s life. In particular, it is about how Celie’s relationships with some strong black women make her realize that she is loved, that she does have value, that she can stand up for herself and accomplish something, and the power that love plays in it all.

Viewed through slightly different eyes a decade later, The Color Purple is really a story of female empowerment and taking charge of one’s life. It resonates especially well in the last couple of years: Purple was #MeToo and #TimesUp well before those entered the hashicon. It is the story of how one strong woman — Sofia — can serve as an example to others that they can say “Hell No!” when faced with abuse and mistreatment, and how seeing confident and powerful women can inspire those who have lived in fear for most of their lives to, in Hamilton-speak, grab the narrative by the balls and rewrite the story of the rest of their lives. This message clearly hit with the audience.

But Color Purple is much more. Shall we say it shades the story in a very special way. This isn’t just the story of women taking charge of their lives: it is the story of African-American women taking charge of their lives. This is a black cast telling a black story, but one with larger resonance. It also celebrates the black form, which is often a very different aesthetic than the white form: with curves and a respect for size and shape and using — and celebrating — what nature gave you. That, too, appeared to hit a nerve with the audience, judging by the applause.

In addition to the power of the story, there was the power of the music. I’ve read some reviewers that view the music of this show as pedestrian — but what do they know. I enjoyed it, and the performances were great (tempered only by the problematic sound system of the Pantages).

In the lead position was Adrianna Hicks (FB) as Celie. Hicks was at the center of the action; onstage for most of the show. She carried most of the story; she was also the character that had the greatest transformation from beginning to end. Hicks captured well the change from frightened young girl to self-confident woman who know what she wanted and how to get it. Hicks had a strong voice and sang spectacularly; she ovation she got at the end was well deserved.

In the second tier of strong women were Carrie Compere (FB) as Sofia and Carla R. Stewart (FB) as Shug Avery. Both were the catalysts for Celie’s transformation. Both were exemplars for size, beauty and strength on stage — and the audience ate all of those attributes up. Strong performers, strong singers, strong movement, strong style.

In the third tier of women who found their strength were Erica Durham (FB) as Nettie and Gabrielle Reid (FB) as Squeak (we had understudies at our performance; the roles are normally played by N’Jameh Camara (FB) and Erica Durham (FB), respectfully). Both captured their characters well and sang strongly.

Turning to the main named male roles, who have in many ways a secondary, although key, role in the story. Gavin Gregory (FB)’s Mister was a strong performance: violent and mean at the beginning, transformed at the end. J. Daughtry (FB) was an ebullent Harbo who worked well with Compere’s Sofia.

The remaining characters were portrayed by members of the ensemble, strongly and with feeling. Ensemble members were (named characters noted, grey indicates a normal role but not at our performance): Darnell Abraham (FB) [Adam], Amar Atkins (FB) [Guard], Kyle E. Baird (FB) [Bobby / Buster], Angela Birchett (FB) [Church Lady], Bianca Horn (FB) [Church Lady], Mekhai Lee (FB) [Grady], C. E. Smith (FB) [Preacher / Ol’ Mister], Clyde Voce (FB) [Adam / Swing], Nyla Watson (FB) [Olivia / Swing], J. D. Webster (FB) [Pa], Brit West (FB) [Church Lady]. Swings were Nikisha Williams (FB) [Asst. Stage Manager] and Michael Wordly.

Music was provided by a nine-piece orchestra conducted by Darryl Archibald (FB) [Keys 1], with Wayne Green [Keys 2] as Associate Conductor. The remaining members of the orchestra ( indicates local) were: Michael Karcher (FB) [Guitar (Electric, Acoustic, Dobro, Harmonica, 12 String)]; Chris Thigpen (FB) [Bass (Electric, Acoustic)]; Trevor Holder [Drums], Frank Fontaine (FB) [Alto Sax, Clarinet, Flute, Alto Flute]; Richard Mitchell [Bari Sax, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor Sax]; Aaron Smith (FB) [Trumpet, Flugelhorn]; William Malpede (FB) [Keyboard Sub]. Other music credits: Randy Cohen (FB) [Keyboard Programming]; Talitha Fehr (FB) [Music Coordinator]; Eric Heinly [Orchestra Contractor]. Production music credits: Catherine Jayes (FB) [Music Supervisor], Joseph Joubert (FB) [Orchestrations].

Turning to the production and creative credits: In addition to serving as director, John Doyle did the set design and musical staging. This design was augmented by Ann Hould-Ward‘s costume design and Charles G. LaPointe (FB)’s wig and hair design. Although minimal, they worked well to establish place and time. Jane Cox (FB)’s lighting design was also minimal, but it established mood well. The biggest weakness was Dan Moses Schreier (FB)’s sound design: although it worked well for a touring company, it was swallowed by the Pantages. Amplification was obvious and a bit tinny, and the actual words often got lost for the muddiness of the sound. The Pantages facility is a hard one to amplify in a clean manner — it is perhaps its biggest drawback with so many hard surfaces bouncing the sound in many ways. The Pantages really needs a local sound designer to tweak tour sound, but that never happens. Rounding out the production credits: Matt DiCarlo (FB) [Associate Director];  Telsey + Company (FB) [Casting]; Thomas Schall [Fight Coordinator]; Brian Schrader [General Manager]; Jose Solivan (FB) [Company Manager]; Melissa Chacón (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Richard A. Leigh (FB) [Stage Manager]. There were loads of producers, touring producers, executive producers, and such that I’m not going to list.

The Color Purple continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through June 17, 2018. Tickets are available through the Pantages Website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or TodayTix. I found the show worth seeing and quite enjoyable.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FBז״ל, a mini-subscription at the Soraya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

It’s June — ah, June. That, my friends, means only one thing: the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), Here’s our June schedule:

July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend appears to be open, as Jane Eyre The Musical from Chromolume Theatre (FB) looks to be a dead parrot ⚰🐦. The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, and Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening on Saturday, and a hold for the OperaWorks (FB) “Opera ReConstructed” at CSUN on Sunday. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) on Saturday, and the Actors Co-Op Too! production of Always Andrews: A Musical Tribute to the Andrews Sisters on Sunday at Actors Co-op (FB). The next weekend brings the last Actors Co-Op Too! production, Twelfth Night, or What You Will at Actors Co-op (FB). There may also be a production of The Most Happy Fella at MTW — I’m not sure about it, but the hold date is on the calendar.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

 

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