Musical adaptation of The Color Purple makes a joyful noise at Royal MTC
Stellar cast, outstanding music smooth over flaws of adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel
In a barn-burner of an opening number, the cast in the musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple sing of making "a joyful noise."
And what a joyful noise is made in Kimberley Rampersad's production of the 2005 adaptation, which opens the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Mainstage season (in a co-production with the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, where the show has already run).
Over its 155 minutes (with intermission), a remarkably impressive cast of 16 — most out-of-town performers making their first appearances at RMTC — belt out gospel, soul and blues-inspired music by the team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis (fun fact: the composer of both Earth, Wind & Fire's September and the Friends theme) and Stephen Bray (a frequent Madonna collaborator) with irrepressible energy and spirit.
Which is not to say The Color Purple is light entertainment, as anyone familiar with either Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel or Steven Spielberg's 1985 film adaptation already knows.
The story of Celie (Tara Jackson) is often bleak. She is an oppressed person within an already oppressed group, growing up poor, black and a woman in the American south of the early 20th century (a setting effectively conveyed by Brian Perchaluk's spare, but hauntingly evocative, set, which is exquisitely lit in deep colours by Hugh Conacher).
Traded like livestock by her cruel father to the equally harsh Mister (Ryan Allen), Celie is soon cut off from the one joy in her life — her relationship with her sister, Nettie (Allison Edwards-Crewe).
Cowed by a life of abuse at the hands of men, Celie gradually begins to find a sense of empowerment in her relationships with other women. From Sofia (Janelle Cooper), who marries Mister's gentler son Harpo (Andrew Broderick), Celie learns that a woman can stand up to a man, and say, as a show-stopping first act number proclaims, Hell No!
From Shug Avery (Karen Burthwright) — an old flame of Mister's who has escaped by finding fame as an entertainer — Celie learns tenderness, and that a world exists beyond the brutal one she knows.
The themes of female empowerment, and of the strength in the bonds of women, resonate in the book by Marsha Norman (another Pulitzer Prize-winner, and a Tony-winning playwright to boot).
But Norman's book makes sacrifices to expedience in a story that spans decades (and continents). Characters in this adaptation are too often thinly drawn, and the story races from year to year at a pace that sometimes leaves the sense of checking off a plot point before sprinting to the next.
Russell, Willis and Bray's spectacularly affecting music, though, elevates and propels the musical. It's performed marvellously by a cast that — rarely for the Winnipeg stage — is made up exclusively of people of colour, and by a nine-person live band, under the deft musical direction of Floydd Ricketts.
There are spectacular voices throughout the cast. Allen delivers a second act highlight with the Mister's Song, his rich tenor gliding gracefully through the surprisingly tender ballad.
As the "church ladies" — a sort of gossipy Greek chorus — Masini McDermott, Maiko Munroe and Sarah Nairne deliver some welcome comic touches and belt out some wonderful connective numbers.
Burthwright delivers a convincingly nuanced performance as Shug, and delivers songs like her juke-joint number Push Da Button with gusto. As Sofia, Cooper makes Hello No! is a rousing anthem of female empowerment.
But it's Jackson who owns the show, delivering a tragically vulnerable performance as Celie, but showing the strength at her core with a voice that that is simultaneously superbly powerful and profoundly, deeply emotional.
It's a powerhouse performance that grounds a polished and assured production by Rampersad, a Winnipeg-raised director and choreographer who has lately attracted attention nationally (and internationally, thanks to no less a source than the New York Times) for her directorial work with the Shaw festival.
She's also — notably for a story about the empowerment of black women — the first black woman to direct a production of The Color Purple, according to the Citadel Theatre.
Rampersad gives her production an energy which rarely lags (in spite of the musical's drawn-out ending), but is still delicate enough that it doesn't drown out the resonant emotional notes of the musical.
Though its story is often grim, The Color Purple celebrates strength, faith and the human spirit with a joyful noise indeed.
The Color Purple runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until Nov. 16.