A vibrant and powerful ‘Color Purple’ soars at Riverside

By GAIL CHOOCHAN THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Mar 27, 2019

Over the past several months, the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts has brought an enchanting Disney tale (“Beauty and the Beast”), a rollicking Buddy Holly revue (“A Rockabilly Christmas”) and an endearing drag queen extravaganza (“La Cage aux Folles”). With its current offering and season-closer, “The Color Purple,” Riverside is going straight for the heart.

Audiences, be prepared to be put through an emotional wringer.

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic about a young woman named Celie and her long and harrowing journey to find happiness is wonderfully retold onstage, under the sharp and loving direction of Amy Jones. And it’s a real treat that the local theater is producing the recent Broadway revival version, which won two Tonys for the musical and its star Cynthia Erivo. Last summer, the Kennedy Center welcomed this latest adaptation, and just like the D.C. production, the Riverside show is topped with powerhouse performances.

Frank Foster’s striking set design takes a minimalist approach to this story set in rural Georgia with walls of spaced-out wooden planks. The whole look gets a lovely boost with warm lighting from Mike Jarett, and some cool projections from Patrick W. Lord.

The musical opens with the upbeat “Huckleberry Pie,” playfully sung by Celie and her younger sister, Nettie. This sweet moment of innocence quickly becomes undone when you realize that Celie is pregnant with her second child by her father—and she’s only 14. Having her two babies taken from her, not knowing where they are, and repeated abuse from Pa are just the beginning of Celie’s story.

Celie is married off to the widow Mister; he initially has his creepy eyes on Nettie, who has aspirations of being a teacher, but is told she’s too young by their father. Not wanting the “ugly” daughter, Mister agrees to take Celie after Pa throws a cow into the deal. Once there, she’s worked like a mule and looks after his awful children. Life couldn’t get any worse, right?

The one bright spot in her life is Nettie, whom Mister angrily throws out during a visit, which rips Celie apart—thinking she will never see her again—and has her questioning her faith in God. Emotionally and physically broken, Celie finds solace by surrounding herself with strong women like the fearless Sofia and infamous singer Shug Avery.

Playwright Marsha Norman has created this deeply moving portrait about sisterhood and solidarity, while also exploring domestic abuse, sexism and injustice. Celie’s mindset is to follow orders by the men in her life—her father, her husband—and sacrificing her own wants, but she’s shown another and much happier way of living when she sees the deep love between Sofia and Mister’s son, Harpo, and how freely Sofia and Shug speak their minds.

With a kind word and touch from Shug, Celie slowly begins to believe she is worth something and develops a deep love for Mister’s old mistress. In Shug’s moving song, “Too Beautiful for Words,” she tells her, “You not ugly. You the grace of God if us ever see it.”

Leading this top-notch cast is Kanysha Williams, who makes her Riverside debut as the long-suffering Celie with a beautiful, vulnerable performance. And when her character finally finds her voice, it’s a powerful moment to see her stand up for herself and take back the reins of her life before it’s too late. Williams’ performance of the penultimate song “I’m Here” is chill-inducing.

As Shug, whose name seemingly drips off everyone’s lips, Nia Savoy is radiant. Her performance is at times full of razzle-dazzle like in the red-hot musical number “Push Da Button” but also tenderness in her scenes with Williams. Their performance of “What About Love?” with its immense emotional pull is one of the show’s highlights.

Riverside regular Kadejah One returns with a crowd-pleasing performance as the feisty Sofia. Her outsized vocals are perfect for the defiant all-female number “Hell No!” and her comedy chops suit her well in the slinky “Any Little Thing” duet with Carl L. Williams as her dutiful hubby, Harpo. Despite a don’t-mess-with-me exterior, her character is not exempt from the abuse by men.

Wendell Jordan, who plays the cruel Mister, is also terrific here and vocally strong, which he proves in “Mister’s Song,” after Celie curses him for all his wrongdoing.

As the gossipy Church Ladies, Rhonda Oliver, Brittny Smith and Taylor J. Washington, whose giant voices blend so perfectly together, bring much levity to the show with their ongoing commentary on the lives of this tight-knit town.

With its soul-stirring performances and an irresistible soundtrack featuring jazz, gospel, ragtime and blues, “The Color Purple” is easily one of the year’s must-see productions.