The Color Purple

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Scott Suchman

Editorial Review

Review: ‘The Color Purple’ at the National Theatre

By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, April 14, 2011

“Push the button,” goes one refrain of the relentlessly button-pushing musical “The Color Purple.” Audiences who prefer not to be whipsawed between pure virtue and despicable evil should steer clear of this superheated show at the National Theatre.

The musical’s heart-tugging tactics are blatant and persistent, but that doesn’t mean the affair is entirely unskilled. Adapted in 2004 from Alice Walker’s popular 1982 novel, which was set mainly in rural Georgia during the first half of the 20th century, the show juxtaposes the unbearably brutal with the intensely sentimental. The men are simple violent dogs and the women — especially Celie, raped by her father and reviled as “ugly” by her snarling husband — are pitiable and charismatic. When gross injustices are righted as the blues-gospel-power ballad score hits anthemic heights, even the jaded might feel free, for an instant, to tingle away.

The non-Equity cast at the National renders the extremes of this saga with commitment and flair. (Perhaps the ensemble is relieved to be in one place for two weeks: This group played eight cities in 10 days to start the month.) The voices are sure and the bodies are generally limber, with the performers hitting a jubilant peak during the raunchy blues and snake-hipped dancing of the big juke-joint number, “Push Da Button.”

The women, of course, are especially winning. Dayna Jarae Dantzler loosens up beautifully as Celie evolves from cowering victim to self-possessed entrepreneur. Taprena Augustine glows with style as the singer and universal lust object Shug Avery, while Pam Trotter is amusingly imperious as Sofia, who dominates her husband but fights a losing battle with white Southern law. All three performers have an engaging ease with the folksy comedy and romantic stirrings of the Marsha Norman book, and vocally they’re up to the pop and blues of the score, co-written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

The orchestra is thin, with just a handful of musicians in the pit, and that does as much as anything to give this touring production the whiff of decay. (Gimmicky local angle: WPGC 95.5 FM radio host Lil’ Mo is being featured as one of the church singers.) Visually, John Lee Beatty’s set, with its hazy Southern sun hovering in the background, still shifts from church to field to (briefly) Africa effectively enough with the fast-moving plot and score, though Paul Tazewell’s sharp costumes feel like the most assertive element of the design.

The “Purple” hallmark endures: the spirit that churns on as Celie gradually finds blessings worth counting. At the National, it’s a steambath of pathos, if not exactly a Broadway spectacular.

Book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreography, Donald Byrd; lighting, Brian McDevitt; sound design, Craig Cassidy. With Traci Allen, Nesha Ward, Virlinda Stanton, Deaun Parker, Phillip Brandon, Mark Hall, Edward C. Smith, Cameron J. Ross, Allison Semmes, Christopher Sams, Karen Niceley, Keyon Powers, Melana L. Lloyd and Julius C. Carter. About 2 hours 45 minutes.

Preview: ‘The Color Purple’ at National Theatre

By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, April 14, 2011

Apparently Lil’ Mo missed the memo on the diva behavior that is supposed to accompany cameo roles in theatrical productions. Far from holing up in her dressing room and making over-the-top demands, the R&B singer and WPGC radio personality has taken such an enthusiastic interest in her role in “The Color Purple” at the National Theatre that her one-song assignment has turned into a multi-number performance, not to mention long hours of rehearsal.

Her devotion to the project could be partly due to her love of the show, which was apparent as soon as casting director Mark Minnick contacted her about the part.

“I couldn’t dial back quick enough,” says Mo (nee Cynthia Loving).

The musical, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker, mixes tragedy and triumph, chronicling the life of Celie, a young African American woman living in the South in the 1930s. The main character is sexually abused by her father, loses track of her beloved sister and is forced into a loveless marriage. In short, the themes are heavy, and some of the scenes are startlingly difficult to watch. Yet Mo had an early introduction to the tale.

“I snuck and read the novel,” Mo admits, guessing she was about 9 years old when she started secretly borrowing her mother’s copy. “I’ve always been attached to it.”

Mo plays the church soloist, an appropriate part given that she is the daughter of a pastor. The fact that Mo is also a local celebrity makes her casting all the more apt.

“This is a show about community and family, so it makes perfect sense to have her,” Minnick says.

Although Mo has had little theater experience outside of church plays growing up, her vivacious radio personality and stellar voice seemed like a perfect fit. Minnick, who spends long hours in the car listening to talk radio, remembers first hearing “The Lil’ Mo Show” when it debuted about a year ago.

“I said, ‘Oh, my god! This is the Superwoman,’ ” Minnick says, referring to Mo’s 2001 hit, which featured the rapper Fabolous.

While the casting director calls Mo “that extra hook” to an already special production, he never knows what to expect when dealing with celebrities, especially one who has collaborated with such big names as Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott and LL Cool J. But any apprehensions quickly vanished when Mo traveled to South Carolina to rehearse with the cast.

“When I saw her perform, I thought, ‘This woman is good,’ ” Minnick says. “Not only can she sing, but she sings with passion.”

While in South Carolina, Mo worked nonstop from morning until night, according to Minnick. “While my cast took a break, she kept working,” he adds.

It wouldn’t occur to Mo, a self-avowed perfectionist, to act any other way.

“When you step on stage, your ego doesn’t work there,” she says, and the fact that “The Color Purple” is so beloved in the black community means she has to bring her A game. That sometimes means squeezing rehearsals into every spare minute of an already hectic schedule that includes working at WPGC, focusing on her next album, which is scheduled to drop this year, and her three young children. To make it work, she sings along to the CD in the car, which means her kids — ages 2, 6 and 8 — are also getting an early introduction to the story.

“They know all the words,” she says.