Sunday, March 24, 2024

"The Color Purple" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

Alice Walker's beloved 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple is such an inspiring story, and one I've loved for a long time. It's had many successful adaptations - the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie, the 2005 stage musical adaptation, the 2015 Broadway revival, the recent movie musical (which is how I spent my Christmas Day last year). And now we have Theater Latte Da's version of the Broadway musical, a co-production with Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY. The visually stunning production features many fantastic performances, and all of the emotional highs and lows of this epic American story. See it at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis now through May 5, and #bringtissues.

The Color Purple is Celie's story, a young, poor, black woman living in rural Georgia in the early 20th century. At 14, she's had two babies by her father, who has "gotten rid of them" and then sells her to a widower who needs a wife to take care of his home and children. The only love Celie knows is that of her sister Nettie, from whom she is separated and not allowed contact. Celie is repeatedly told by everyone that she's ugly and worthless, so of course she believes it. But as the 40-year story plays out, she meets a few women who inspire her and teach her that life can be more than pain and drudgery. Celie's hard-working daughter-in-law Sofia is a strong woman who demands respect, the glamorous singer Shug Avery teaches Celie about love, and Nettie comes back into her life from far away. It's truly remarkable to watch this woman who has gone through so much choose to reclaim her life from those who have belittled and diminished her, and create a happy life with people and work that she loves, and a renewed faith in herself and the goodness of the world. In Celie's crowning moment, just after the woman she loves leaves her, she sings, "Most of all I'm thankful for loving who I really am. I'm beautiful. Yes, I'm beautiful, and I'm here!"

photo by Dan Norman
Perhaps because it's a co-production, the cast and creative team are a mix of local and national talent. There are many familiar faces on stage and off, but also some new talent making their #TCTheater debuts. One of those is director Daniel J. Bryant, who leads this terrific 13-person cast and gives us a gorgeous vision on stage. The tone of this production leans more into the humor, and therefore didn't make me weep like others I've seen. But there are still plenty of moving and poignant moments in Celie's story that brought tears to my eyes.

Nubia Monks as Celie (photo by Dan Norman)
Less than a week after closing Wine in the Wilderness at Penumbra Theatre, Nubia Monks gives another fierce performance as Celie, although this one with a bit more softness and vulnerability. She takes Celie from meek and compliant to strong and defiant, almost overnight when she discovers that her sister is alive. Nubia has big shoes to fill in this role - Whoopi Goldberg from the original film, Tony winners LaChanze and Cynthia Erivo from the original and revival Broadway productions, Fantasia in the recent film - and she does so not by imitation but by making it her own. Particularly in Celie's signature song "I'm Here," making interesting vocal and performance choices, imbuing it with determination and even some humor.

Nambi Mwasa is lovely as Nettie, the sister relationship being the foundational love story of the piece. #TCTheater newcomer Angela Wildflower, who's played both Celie and Shug in the past, lights up the stage as Shug, making it easy to see why everyone loves Shug. David L. Murray, Jr., last seen on the Ritz Theater stage in 2016 as Coalhouse Walker in Theater Latte Da's brilliant 2016 production of Ragtime, is appropriately terrifying as Celie's abusive husband, later undergoing a believable transformation into a kinder person, and sings as gorgeously as ever. Ronnie Allen is a charmer as Harpo; Carnetha Anthonay is tough and funny as Sofia; Sola Dee lives up to the name of her character Squeak, walking the line between annoying and adorable; church ladies Lynnea Doublette, Heather McElrath, and Angela Stewart steal scenes as a gossiping pattering harmonizing Greek chorus; and ensemble members Lamar Jefferson, Dwight Xavier Leslie, and Dennis W. Spears shine in multiple roles.

Miss Celie's Pants! (photo by Dan Norman)
The stage of the Ritz is light and open, with a multi-level wooden floor and slatted back wall, both of which have inventive compartments and pieces that pull out to create other spaces. Because there are no large set pieces or backdrops, just a few benches and crates, allowing lots of room for the story to play out. The lighting is just gorgeous, evoking African sunsets, Georgia fields, and of course many shades of purple. In Act Two, the back wall opens as we head to Africa, creating more space, and giving us a peek at the five-piece band led by Music Director Sanford Moore, doing justice to this great score that's infused with gospel and blues. Choreographer Heather Beal has created some fun and energetic movement perfectly suited to the music and the story. Characters are dressed in colorful period clothing that changes with the decades, and the African costumes are a feast for the eyes.

I don't know why it took Theater Latte Da so long to do The Color Purple, but I'm glad they finally did. It's a great score, a classic and beloved and inspiring story, and Latte Da beautifully brings it to life. It's an epic story (and nearly three-hour runtime), with many complex interconnected characters who all have an arc, and come together in the end with a feeling of companionship, forgiveness, and hope.