Saturday, in between a Bat Mitzvah morning service and the reception in the afternoon, we squoze (squeezed?) in our season tickets for our first show of the year: “The Color Purple” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The story has been around for a few years: first as a novel by Alice Walker, and then as an excellent movie financed by Oprah Winfrey, and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah, and a host of others. “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.
In short, it is a very powerful story that speaks to many, many folks. The Ahamanson production of it was excellent, or as my daughter put it, phenominal. Let’s look at some of the highlights.
The cast in this production, which was a touring production, was supurb. I’ll provide a complete list later, but I do want to highlight the performances of Jeannette Bayardelle as Celie, Felicia P. Fields as Sofia, Michelle Williams as Shug Avery, Rufus Bonds Jr. as Mister, and Stu James as Harpo. All were strong singers and performers who did an excellent job in inhabiting their characters.
The show was very interesting musically. The show features music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, all of whom are new to the musical theatre. It had a strong gospel feel to it. But more important was how much of the show was sung — I would eastimate upwards of 85%-90% of the show is sung… but it doesn’t feel operatic or sung through (such as Sweeney Todd does). But you look back, and you realize how much of the story was told musically. This is the mark of a good musical: it can use music to concisely tell story, establish people and personas, and advance the plot. The music works very well in this, even though there are very few “stand along” songs.
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. So kudos to Paul Tazewell, the Costume Designer and Charles G. LaPointe, who did hair design, for their work. I’ll note that this is the same team that worked on the recent Pasadena Playhouse musical “Ray Charles Live”
I do want to comment on the audience of the show. To me, theatre is theatre. I view theatre the way Ray Charles viewed music: “Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.” I think good theatre is good theatre, whether the author is black, white, yellow, red, or green, and whether the cast or theme is black, white, yellow, red, or green. Yet I have observed a distinct change in audience when I go to a “black” production (e.g., “Fences”, “Sister Act”, “Ray Charles Live”, “Color Purple”, “Cuttin Up”): the audience becomes predominantly black. This always bothers me — not in the sense that blacks shouldn’t go to theatre — but in the sense of “Why don’t non-blacks come to the show in the same numbers?” Why isn’t everyone and their brother coming because the show is good? It just always bothers me. Under the skin, we’re all people who love, laugh, care, and experience. I want to see a good show about people, about how life changes them, and that people will tell that story with a song or two, which is performed, preferably in a large building, in a central part of town, in a dark room, as part of a play, with a lot of people listening, who have all paid a great deal to get in.
Anyway, on to the show credits.
The cast of “The Color Purple” was large and extremely talented: Jeannette Bayardelle (Celie), Felicia P. Fields (Sofia), Michelle Williams (Shug Avery), Rufus Bonds Jr. (Mister), Stu James (Harpo), LaToya London (Nettie), Stephanie St. James (Squeak), Lynette Dupree (Church Lady Jarene), Kimberly Ann Harris (Church Lady Doris), Virginia Ann Woodruff (Church Lady Darlene), Adam Wade (Ol’ Mister), Bridgette Bentley (Church Soloist), Shani M. Borden (Swing), Brian Harlan Brooks (Swing), Renee Monique Brown (Ensemble), Tiffany Daniels (Ensemble), Quentin Earl Darrington (Pa, Chief), Alex De Castro (Young Celie, Young Olivia, Older Henrietta), Lesley Terrell Donald (Buster, Bobby), Aliyah D. Flowers (Swing), Andre Garner (Swing), Rhett George (Ensemble), Dameka Hayes (Ensemble), Jenna Ford Jackson (Ensemble), LaTonya Holmes (Swing), Trent Armand Kendell (Preacher), Grasan Kingsberry (Older Adam), Keith Byron Kirk (Grady), Shumyah McRae (Older Olivia), Kristopher Thompson-Bolden (Ensemble), Anthony Wayne (Ensemble), Diamond White (Young Nettie, Young Henrietta), Mariama Whyte (Swing), and Anthony Williams II (Young Harpo, Young Adam).
On the technical side: The original story was written by Alice Walker, and adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. The production was directed by Gary Griffin. Other key technical credits are: Donald Byrd (Choreography), John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design), Paul Tazewell (Costume Design), Brian MacDevitt (Lighting Design), Jon Weston (Sound Design), Telsey + Company (Casting), Jonathan Tunick (Orchestrations), Kevin Stites (Music Supervision), Sheilah Walker (Music Director), Charles G. LaPointe (Hair Design), and Angelina Avallone (Make-up Design). There were loads and loads of producers.
Next up on the theatre calendar is “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Cabrillo Music Theatre on January 12. After that is “Orson’s Shadow” at the Pasadena Playhouse on February 9. Somewhere around there we’ll also get tickets to “Steel Magnolias” at REP East. March 15 brings “Jekyll & Hyde” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, followed the next day by “Sweeney Todd” at the Ahmanson. That’s our current 1Q08 in theatre.