Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Ringling International Arts Festival 2015
The Color Purpleis a perfect piece for Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe to present, it speaks so strongly of the black experience on so many emotional levels. When it opened on Broadway, critical reaction was mixed; most critics loved the production, loved most of the cast, but were undecided about the musical itself. I think there is a great musical or opera in this story, but I am not sure that bookwriter Marsha Norman and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, responsible for the music and lyrics, have found it. The storytelling is clear and effective but the big emotional moments are not well musicalized. Not until late in the second act do the central characters finally get a memorable musical moment, "Mister's Song" for Mister and "I'm Here" for Celie. Even the title song passes without landing strongly. I can only wonder what Ahrens and Flaherty or Udell and Geld (Purlie) might have done with these characters.
Directed by James Harkness, who has been with this musical since its earliest days in Atlanta, WBTT offers a rousing production, brilliantly performed by the entire cast. Apphia Campbell, a founding member of the company who has been making a career in China of late, returns to give a riveting performance as Celie, capturing both the beaten down child and the strong woman she becomes, as well as everything in between. New to WBTT, Cecile E. Washington, Jr. gives a richly detailed performance as Mister. All the way through he is mainly the menacing force yet shows us how he got to this point. Still, in the late scenes of act two, when he has found some personal peace, he is still believable. Joel Patrick King is equally effective playing both the young and older Harpo, and Dametria "Dee" Selmore as Sofia is most effective as the character ages. Khadijah Rolle is effective as Nettie, her strongest moments are in the Africa sequence that opens act two. Tarra Conner jones, Tierra A. Walker, and Deidra Grace form a strong presence as the three church ladies, acting as a kind of Greek chorus and boy what great singing! Neyce Pierre plays Shug Avery, who has an important emotional impact on Celie without ever being able to grow up herself. All of the supporting cast add dimension to the production, fine dancing and ensemble singing.
Mr. Harkness' sure hand manifests itself in the nuanced performances of the entire cast and with the creditable aging of the characters, very important in staying emotionally attached to them. Although no one is credited, the makeup design is a very strong element, especially for the men, helping them physically age. The whole production takes place on very functional scenic design by Donna and Mark Buckalter which features door frames on casters that help define different locations. The costumes by Cristy Owen are outstanding, rich and colorful. Wig design by Mydra McKinnon is effective, but someone with some extra money could bestow a blessing on the theater offering a grant to purchase some new and better wigs. Some of those WBTT has have served well in multiple productions through the years. Excellent lighting design by Michael Pasquini completes the technical side of things, with regular company stalwarts Annette Breazeale (property master), Juanita Mumford (stage manager), and James E. Dodge II (production manager) in their usual roles. A special shout out to the McKinnon sisters, Mydra as co-costume designer/wig designer, Myllanna as house manager and Marta behind the concession counter and handing out purple M&Ms to those who wear something Purple; WBTT is a better place because of the three of you.
John Bronston as musical director leads the very fine bandTony Benade on reeds, Lenny Balestreri on drums, Bill VanAllen on guitar, and Keith Carmen on keyboard.
I can see the continued growth of WBTT in its ability to attract fine and experienced actors from outside our area who can share with the fine local talent pool. New this year are more comfortable seats, now reserved instead of having the audience rush in to get the best locations, and beautiful new risers on all three sides of the stage. The Color Purple is a fine choice for WBTT and James Harness has done a brilliant job directing this stunning production.
The Color Purple, presented by West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, through November 21, 2015, at 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
Cast (in order of Appearance):