By Barry Reszel
A month before the 2019 Equity Jeff Awards are conferred during the Chicagoland Theatre Prom at Oakbrook Terrace’s Drury Lane Theatre (Oct. 21; deets and tix here), the same stage sets the bar for 2020 musical nominees with Director Lili-Anne Brown‘s masterful, three-tissues-required, production of The Color Purple.
Brown’s passionate cast of top-notch musical talents tell the story of Celie, a young African-American girl living in rural Georgia 90 years ago. The musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel earned 11 Tony nominations in 2006 (LaChanze won the Tony for Best Actress) and another four in 2016, with Cynthia Erivo earning a Best Actress Tony, along with the production for Best Musical Revival. Chicago’s Gary Griffin directed the 2006 staging while John Doyle directed the scaled-down revival that enjoyed great success on London’s West End before returning to New York. A cinematic adaptation in 1985 by Steven Spielberg featured a star-studded cast including Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Marsha Norman, who also adapted The Secret Garden and The Bridges of Madison County, penned the musical’s script. Music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Brey.
Celie’s story is one of painful perseverance, of a young girl abused by her father, made to believe she’s ugly and abused by her husband. Yet she inspiringly rises above her tragic life to find love, independence, success and identity. A full plot summary and production history may be read here.
In this story of African-American women from their points of point of view, each unique character contributes to the melange that together, somehow, helps move Celie to redemption. And so on the Oakbrook Tererace stage, all eyes first fall on the glorious performance of Eben K. Logan. In a showcase of magnificently talented women, Logan’s star-quality shines with honesty, projected hope and the voice of an angel as her Celie moves from a multi-abused teenager to a confident force of nature.
Celie’s sister Nettie, who runs away from home when Celie is given away by her abusive step-father to her abusive husband, is touchingly played Kyrie Courtier. The sisters’ innocence in the show’s early scenes ground the plot in in the realistic warmth of sisterly love. It’s key to Celie’s hopeful spirit and sets the stage for her acceptance of support and love from other women, not to mention their ultimate reunion.
Sydney Charles shines as the complex, eccentric, juke-joint singer Shug Avery. Perhaps the most complex character in Walker’s masterpiece, Shug’s confident nonchalance and true love for Celie stand above her more unsavory life choices. Charles pulls every ounce of emotion from this character, ranging from her electric rendition of “Push Da Button” to the gorgeous “Too Beautiful for Words,” “The Color Purple” and the magnificent duet with Logan, “What About Love?”
In the midst of this achingly emotional tale emerges the necessary comic relief brought on by trio of fabulous musical actresses, Camille Robinson, Alexis J. Roston and Shantel Cribbs as Jarene, Doris and Darlene. This Greek chorus of gossiping church ladies appear throughout the show (not unlike the Thernardiers in Les Miserables) to divert attention from the mostly bleak happenings and help carry the plot to its ultimately redemptive conclusion.
Other performances of note include those of the fabulously talented Nicole Michelle Haskins as a take-no-prisoners (“Hell No!”) role model to Celie in Sophia and the terrific Gilbert Domally as a funny, kind-hearted-if-misled Harpo. Melvin Abston is strong as the cruel, chauvinistic bully Master, Celie’s husband; so is Sean Blake as Pa and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. as the powerful Preacher and as Ol’ Mister, who illustrates the handing down of cruelty through generations.
It’s all performed on Arnel Sancianco’s simple, multi-level set of exposed scrap wood and clotheslines and gorgeously lit by by Cat Wilson, with projections by Cassy Schillo. Costumes and wigs by Penny Lane Studios and Samantha C. Jones are period-perfect, with the costume changes among the Greek chorus church ladies particularly memorable.
The Color Purple is a musical that certainly leaves audiences emotionally drained. But like so many other all great stories, it ultimately illustrates that love wins out. Brown and her immensely talented cast and crew of consummate professionals deliver that message at a time when it’s most needed. And together they set the bar for the 2020 Jeff nominations.
Drury Lane Theatre presents “The Color Purple” at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, through November 3. More infomration and tickets are available here.