Fort Worth — By the time director Akín Babatundé has led us through the powerfully sexy and soulful 40-year journey at the heart of the musical The Color Purple at Jubilee Theatre, we’re all dabbing at tears, laughing for joy and applauding for more. This production is so good you just don’t want it to end.
Everything works, and nothing feels overworked.
Babatundé, an internationally acclaimed actor, director and writer, has seamlessly meshed the gospel, jazz and blues musical numbers with the dialogue so that lyrics and dances all help define the story’s clear emotional arc, like a rich symphony, where solos and orchestral swellings all contribute to the felt form. Certainly, music director Geno Young and choreographer Shaté Edwards can take a well-deserved bow along with Babatundé and the terrific ensemble performance for creating a unique, deeply physical, warmly humorous and bravely spiritual night of theater.
The musical, based on Alice Walker’s novel and the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie (famously Oscar-snubbed), with a book by Marsha Norman and music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, premiered on Broadway in 2005. I loved Walker’s brilliant novel about a black child of 14 in rural Georgia at the turn of the century. Celie gives birth to two babies from her brutal supposed father, who then beats her and gets rid of her babies. The story was so starkly realized it changed the way many of us thought about how much anybody can endure and still forgive.
It’s impossible to forget Whoopee Goldberg’s Celie in the movie—but the musical as seen in a national touring production in Dallas was scattered and pedestrian. Not anymore. Jubilee and company and their freshly imagined The Color Purple demonstrates again that great things come in small packages. Set designer Donna Marquet paints an abstract whitewash backdrop that could be a church, a farmhouse or a distant town, behind the open stage at Jubilee’s steeply raked, 150-seat theater.
From the opening Sunday morning number, the get-down and get-saved spirit of gospel singing at the center of the play sets the tone. The 18-member ensemble is turned out in Barbara O’Donoghue’s handsome light-toned costumes, with white aprons over course gray muslin dresses, and tan trousers with dark suspenders (the color purple makes several appearances, too).
Everybody sings—and they can all sing. An awesome trio of church ladies (Crystal Williams, Deon Q. Sanders and the dynamic soloist Liz Francisco) sing about how the good Lord works in “Mysterious Ways.” The same trio is fabulously funny in the harmonious gospel gossip gab, “All We’ve Got to Say,” and later as they strut across the stage in their fancy hats praising “Church Ladies Easter.” Yet, while the choir makes a joyful noise, skinny little Celie (a small-framed, clear-eyed Ebony Marshall Oliver) goes into labor. Everybody clap your hands.
The only joy in Celie’s sad life is her beloved little sister Nettie (a pert, fresh-faced Kristen Bond) who dreams of becoming a teacher. Celie sacrifices everything she has to protect Nettie from their father. Her pa marries Celie off to the predatory well-to-do farmer Mister (Calvin Scott Roberts), mostly as a slave to raise his children. Mister, dawg that he is, attacks poor Nettie when she comes to Celie to escape their pa. Even Nettie disappears from Celie's life, and Mister won’t let her near the mailbox.
The show and the songs follow Celie’s terrible tribulations. Rejected and beaten, called ugly and treated like an animal, her faith in God is pushed to the breaking point. The saving grace, ironically, for this black female Job, is Shug Avery (JuNene K), the community’s notorious fallen woman, a blues singer and Mister’s ex-lover who returns to town sick and broken. Celie nurses Shug back to health, and the two women learn to love and trust each other in a way neither has ever known.
Oliver’s Celie is exquisite in bone and expression; her transformation from a numb, abandoned-dog-like female who puts up with physical and verbal abuse to an awakened woman whose righteous anger gives her the courage to stand up for herself is amazing to watch. “I Curse You, Mister” is dripping with wrath. Celie grows further as the world opens up before her, and Oliver’s face is positively beatific with love and forgiveness in the life-confirming reprise of “The Color Purple.”
JuNene K’s Shug looks the part, with her lovely, slightly weary face and soft curves, and she delivers her songs with an appealing simplicity, especially “Too Beautiful for Words,” her praise of Celie’s kind nature. She’s seductive but not raucous in the big juke joint number, “Push the Button,” and she sings harmoniously in the duets and ensemble pieces.
This is a woman’s show, and all the gals know how to wrap it up, shake it up, and break into song. Chimberly Carter Byrom’s Sophia, the proudly tough-fisted wife of Mister’s oldest son Harpo (a handsome Gabriel Lawson in lady-killer mode) is more fun than a barrel of dynamite in her delivery of “Hell No!,” her hilarious and jivey refusal to let a man lay a hand on her—unless invited. She and Lawson make the prospect of sex feel joyfully funny and warmly erotic in “Any Little Thing”—quite a trick!
In a story filled with surprising turns and transformations, Roberts is grimly convincing as the violent, ugly-tempered Mister, a villain who beats women and his farm hands indiscriminately. Virile looking, with a boxer’s build and his chin in a constant dare-me thrust, he nevertheless melts into an eager lover at the sight of Shug. Cursed and humbled, he delivers “Mister’s Song-Celie’s Curse” with truly poignant feeling.
When the ensemble delivers the finale and everybody is singing about beauty, the lights fade, lingering just a moment longer on Celie’s rapt, upturned face, smiling back at an audience enchanted by an amazing story well told.
Get tix now. This trip will sell out fast.