Though it's been seven years since the musical stage version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer-winning 1982 novel The Color Purple debuted on Broadway, it's just now receiving its first local mounting, courtesy of the ambitious folks at Circle Players and the Tennessee State University theater program. (The touring Broadway version played TPAC in March 2010 and June 2011.)
For those who might be unfamiliar with the particulars — and since the theater program doesn't tell us — the setting is a rural African-American community in Georgia in the 1930s. The protagonist Celie, only 14 at curtain's rise, is a simple-hearted teen who has birthed two babies by her own father, and she suspects he's had the infants killed. Her unfortunate situation is compounded when she marries Mister, a man who lusts after her sister Nettie but settles for Celie, who will do his bidding dutifully and look after his four children.
The epic tale continues over many years, with Celie enduring physical and emotional abuse yet soldiering onward with courage, earning respect in her world and hoping to be reunited with Nettie, whom she fears is dead but in fact has gone to Africa for missionary work. In the interim, Celie strikes up a close relationship with a singer named Shug Avery, who comes to live with her and Mister long enough for romantic sparks to flare up between the two women. Later, fortune smiles on Celie when she inherits a business and makes a success of it.
Accomplished playwright Marsha Norman was tapped to produce the libretto for the musical, and she has crafted a strong script that hits the main story points and also weaves in subplots that have their own dramatic thrust.
In 1985, Steven Spielberg made a film adaptation of The Color Purple, which understated the lesbian aspect of Walker's book. Interestingly, the musical claims it is "based upon the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture." This explains at least in part Norman's similar treatment of the lesbian issue, which is subtle, though it hints at the depth of Celie and Shug's relationship.
Meanwhile, the male characters do not fare well. When they are not portrayed as simply amoral, they often come off as selfishly brutal, devious and without compassion. "God just another man!" says Celie in her frustration, though time eventually tempers Mister's waywardness. And Mister's son, Harpo, proves to be a likable sort.
Co-directing a stage production of this magnitude presents many challenges, and the results are generally very cohesive for Clay Hillwig and Tim Larson, each of whom has successfully handled large-scale shows on his own. Together they wrangle the sizable cast of 37 and elicit able performances from the principals. As Celie, LaToya Gardner is particularly strong, adding to a growing résumé of fine Music City performances in such productions as Aida, Crowns and Caroline, or Change. Gardner creates a lovable and sympathetic character, and she sings with feeling and style.
The support is solid, with Cristina Fentress offering us a feisty Sofia, Krystal Nichols as the comical Squeak, Justin Boyd as the good-natured Harpo and Kelsey Porter as the spirited Nettie.
As Mister, James Rudolph is ornery and cruel (as he should be), and in the role of Shug, J. Karen Thomas infuses both dialogue and song with sophistication and showmanship.
The music and lyrics — by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — are a well-crafted blend of gospel, R&B and lyrical pop, and musical director Eddie Charlton leads a capable combo through the score, which includes upbeat numbers such as "Mysterious Ways," "Push Da Button," "Miss Celie's Pants" and "Hell No!" The Act 2 opener, "African Homeland," is a departure from the show's general style, yet it introduces us to Nettie's new life overseas and establishes the connection to Africa.
The show's dance numbers are choreographed by Peter Fields. While the execution could be tighter, they prove serviceable. Jennifer Kleine oversees a team of costume designers (Sylvia Sheret-Newman, Vera Warrick, Joey Lay), who have created a colorful and period-appropriate wardrobe.
For all of playwright Norman's good work, there are certain aspects of the script that seem improbable, and as the show winds to its conclusion, a series of scenes mark time and tie up relational loose ends while offering little conflict. Still, Celie's triumphant struggle over extremely difficult circumstances is wholly inspirational, coming alive on the large Cox-Lewis Theater stage, in a fine production of a challenging yet rewarding piece.