Theatre Review: ‘The Color Purple’ at Actor’s Express

Photos by Casey Gardner

Actor’s Express is currently presenting the musical version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel “The Color Purple,” directed by David Koté, running through July 29.

With a book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, and a sublimely inspired cast, this show could easily be the event of the summer. I would get tickets now; the Express’ wonderfully intimate theatre is perfect, but the seating capacity is limited, so make haste, as my grandmother would say.

You probably know that Steven Spielberg made a non-musical film in 1985, with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. The musical version began right here in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre, which workshopped it; the world premiere was in September 2004. “The Color Purple” moved to Broadway in 2005 for a successful run and was revived in 2015, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

I happened to see the first preview performance of the show (love being a part of theatre history); I also saw Fantasia in a touring company at the Fox Theatre in 2009. From a moving (but somewhat rambling) first performance, the show has been tweaked and polished by some expert show doctors into a don’t-miss diamond of a musical, which is what Actors’ Express is now offering us.

In rural Georgia in the early 1900’s there is a poor black girl named Celie (Latrice Pace), who is abused and oppressed by her stepfather. Her only joy and comfort is her sister Nettie (Jeanette Illidge), but they are separated when Celie is forced to marry the bullying Mister (Kevin Harry). The sisters vow they will be reunited one day, and the unfolding of this story is extremely moving and ultimately a triumph of the human spirit.

Meanwhile, Celie bonds with the funny and powerful Sofia (Kayce Grogan-Wallace), who is married to Harpo (Lamont Hill), Mister’s son. “All my life I had to fight,” says Sofia, who has made it a practice not to take guff from anyone. She is the first person in Celie’s life to demonstrate that women don’t have to be passive and vulnerable.

Even more impressive to Celie is Shug Avery (Jasmyne Hinson), glamorous and feisty, a longtime mistress of Mister’s. She becomes a champion to Celie; and most important, she shows Celie that real love and tenderness can co-exist and are transformational. Their duet “What About Love?” is an emotional high point.

I’m not going to reveal more of the plot, except to say that years pass, and Celie’s world, understanding, and personal empowerment are vastly expanded. The ending is both electric and moving; there were quite a few tears in the house.

Amanda Wansa Morgan is the music director, and she and six musicians rock the house. From the opening numbers (“Church,” Somebody Gonna Love You,” “Our Prayer”) we are riveted and know that this will be a special evening. Meredith A. Moore is the choreographer; Julie Allardice Ray is the scenic designer. Guided by David Koté’s inspired direction, there is not a wasted move; it’s a simple falling into place that takes your breath away.

I cannot say enough about these singing actors. Led by the the wondrous Latrice Pace as Celie, we are treated to a thrilling, vital show; the songs are funny, moving, and they’ve “got that swing.” Ms. Hinson’s Shug, Mr. Harry’s Mister, Ms. Grogan-Wallace’s Sophia, and Ms. Illidge’s Nettie are all giving performances that are magnificent. The ensemble sound is glorious. “The Color Purple” may not be the greatest musical ever written, but don’t tell that to this cast. And I haven’t seen an audience this excited since, well, “Hamilton.”

I think it’s evident that Actor’s Express has knocked this one out of the park. “Spring Awakening” (2012) has been my favorite musical ever at the Express, but now it has real competition.

It isn’t for me to decide the winner. The ball is now in your court to see this terrific, moving show. Celie’s final song is “I’m Here.” Make sure you’re there; you won’t regret.

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

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