Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Celie is the heart of the musical, adapted from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg's film version by Marsha Norman (book) and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray (music and lyrics). The character ages 40 years over two and a half hours, beginning as a pregnant, abused 14-year-old Black girl in the rural South and finding fulfillment in love, family, work, and her place in the community–and Payton meets the challenge at every step. She gives the audience so many details to notice, such as the shy, disbelieving look of happiness that blooms on her face when she is befriended by Shug Avery (Danielle J. Summons), a jazz singer and longtime mistress of Celie's husband Mister (Torrey Linder), and the shift in her posture from hunched and defensive to secure and confident, all capped by her climactic solo, "I'm Here."
Still, Payton's performance is by no means the only reason to see this production. Director Timothy Douglas has crafted a seamless ensemble with no weak spots. Summons is a resplendent Shug, wearing Kara Harmon's most eye-catching costumes (specifically a knockout dress embroidered with peacocks), while Frenchie Davis is delightful as Sofia, the combative wife of Mister's son Harpo (Solomon Parker III, slick and subdued by turns), and Temidayo Amay is funny and endearing as local girl Squeak. Kaiyla Gross gives a radiant performance as Celie's sister Nettie, who finds a life she never expected. As Mister, Linder starts out domineering and becomes more human as he learns humility.
Tony Cisek's deceptively simple set consists of walls made of horizontal wooden planks, with the addition of furniture to create specific locations. However, those planks also work as louvers, opening to reveal shadow images and scenes from Nettie's life in Africa under the vivid lighting design by Peter Maradudin.
Choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi has created ingenious and eye-filling ways to fill the stage, whether at a church service powered with gospel music, in the fields with Mister's farmhands, Shug stirring up a juke-joint crowd, or African pageantry. Angie Benson, conducting from the keyboard, leads seven other musicians to make a sound that one might expect from a much larger ensemble.
The Color Purple runs through October 9, 2022, at Signature Theatre's MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
Based on the novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture
Celie: Nova Y. Payton