The musical The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s novel, had its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in 2004 and hit Broadway a year later. After a recent reworking and revival in New York, the new show now has its first regional production courtesy of Actor’s Express, running through July 29. ArtsATL critics Andrew Alexander and Jim Farmer caught the production recently and share their thoughts.
Jim Farmer: Howdy, Andrew! So before we render our verdicts on this piece, I want to ask you about your history with the show. Did you see the original version at the Alliance or any of the national tours that followed, including the 2017 one?
Andrew Alexander: I’ve seen the movie, but I wasn’t reviewing back when the Alliance first mounted its musical production of Purple back in 2004. I didn’t get the chance to see the first Broadway show, the touring version or the recent revival, which reportedly made substantial changes to the earlier version. I’m seeing the Actor’s Express production with eyes as fresh as a newborn doe’s. You?
Farmer: I saw the original version at the Alliance and the first national tour, but I missed the touring version of the revival, which — as you mentioned — seemed to be a scaled-down one. So what did you think of the Actor’s Express’ production?
Alexander: I thought it was pretty great, though I have some strong reservations I’ll get to in a second. Overall, the story is moving, the performances are outstanding and the singing is just stand-up-and-shout fantastic. Having seen the other shows, what did you think of this one? How does it measure up?
Farmer: I agree — it’s quite impressive. I’ve always thought that a musical version of The Color Purple — adapted by Marsha Norman — is somewhat limiting. It can’t convey all that the book and a movie can. Having said that, I’m nonetheless a fan of the show and its score. Each version that I have seen has felt distinctive. The original had a marvelous performance by LaChanze, who would go on to win a Tony Award for the role as Celie, and the first touring version had its own energy and power. What impressed me the most here, outside the performances, was the direction by David Kote. I am really happy that Actor’s Express artistic director Freddie Ashley let Kote direct. From the opening musical number, I felt like I was in capable hands. Did you feel the same way?
Alexander: I did. It would take me a long time to praise everything I liked about the show, but a short time to say what I didn’t, so maybe I should dive into the criticism first. Why were performers miked? It took so much intimacy and immediacy away from the production. These are singers with incredible, powerful voices. Actor’s Express is a small, intimate venue. No one in the audience is much further than 20 feet away from any of the performers at any time. I’m anti-mic from the get-go, so it didn’t help that there were technical problems on opening night. There was rustling and static throughout, and I swear I heard a radio broadcast — a baseball game or something — being picked up by an actor’s mic at one point.
In addition, the musicians weren’t visible, and the amplified sound system made it unclear where in the theater they even were. During final bows, the performers pointed toward the musicians; we all looked, but it seemed we were applauding a wall. Their absence and amplification added to the music’s canned, distant quality. In Atlanta’s most intimate venue, the production lacked intimacy. It seemed like a missed opportunity. I would love to see this production again with the performers unmiked and a small ensemble of musicians on stage. This felt like a smaller expression of a Broadway show, but it could have been something very different and much better, something more intimate and true to the bluesy, rootsy, gospel feel of the show’s best songs. Anyway, did you perceive similar problems? And was there a standout number or performance for you?
Farmer: There were several standout musical numbers for me, but let me address what you said first. I saw the production almost a week after you did. When I was leaving the show, I heard a few people say that they enjoyed it a lot more than they did opening night. With what you told me, that now makes sense. Whatever glitches were present opening night — apparently a single wireless mic picked up an errant radio frequency — were corrected by that night’s intermission. The actors were still miked the night I went, but it was very much in balance and sounded beautiful.
I agree that what I can complain about is small compared to what I enjoyed about this. Let’s get my nitpicks out of the way, and those are largely structural. Kevin Harry plays Mister, and while the performer is one of the most reliably talented around (his “Mister’s Song” is a crowd-pleaser), I wish the character had been given more nuance. I felt somewhat the same way with the character of Sofia, but the bottom line is that Kayce Grogan-Wallace brings warmth and ace comic timing to the role.
Yet those are my only real reservations. I think the ensemble here is exemplary, but special note must be given to Latrice Pace’s Celie and Jasmyne Hinson’s Shug Avery. Both are simply extraordinary. Celie is a character who is largely passive; life happens to her. Yet when she finds love with Shug, realizes her sister Nettie is alive and that she has children of her own, and finally confronts the sadistic Mister, she becomes — in front of our eyes — a woman who can take charge and feel good about where she is in her life. Pace’s subsequent version of “I’m Here” works musically and emotionally — I had goosebumps during it. It could very well be one of the finest musical numbers in Atlanta theater history. What stood out for you?
Alexander: I agree that the character Mister as written can come off as one-dimensional. At times, he’s almost like an old-fashioned, mustache-twirling Victorian stage villain, and his transformation, which happens offstage, is likewise so extreme as to be hard to believe. Having said that, Harry is actually pretty compelling to watch in the role. I also liked Kayce Grogan-Wallace’s Sofia; she brought out not just the obvious toughness, humor and sass of the character, but an interesting sense of quick energy and spiritedness that made Celie’s deep admiration of her totally clear. And yes, Pace as Celie and Hinson as Shug Avery are both standouts; it was great to follow that relationship, so central to Celie’s development, which was only hinted at in the film.
The show has a great supporting cast of actors, too, who play multiple roles including a reappearing, gossiping gospel chorus. As for the songs, I liked the ones that showed the clear influence of blues, gospel and roots music. That seemed a natural fit for the story — one song sung by a chorus of male characters about working on Mister’s farm really stood out as a favorite — but I was less a fan of the ones that were more straightforward contemporary Broadway ballads. Maybe it was just the clash of the two styles that I disliked. Still, my reservations are few. I think most audiences will adore this show for the moving story and the skill with which it’s told. Any final thoughts?
Farmer: I think that The Color Purple, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, has a criminally undervalued score. Besides “I’m Here,” the musical has so many rich numbers, including the title song and “What About Love?” a ballad between Celie and Shug as they develop feelings for each other. Pace and Hinson nail that here.
For me, this is a return to form for Actor’s Express. When I think of some of my favorite shows that I’ve seen as an Atlanta patron, many are musicals that stem from Actor’s Express — The Harvey Milk Show, Violet, Gypsy with Libby Whittemore. In the last few years, as Aurora Theatre and Serenbe Playhouse have produced one musical gem after the other, I’ve been disappointed in a number of Actor’s Express’ musicals. Yet this is excellent work, fluidly and inventively directed by Kote and brought to life by a terrific cast and crew. Kudos to the entire team.