By John Lyle Belden
The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre is helping bring live audiences back in a big way with the Tony-winning musical “The Color Purple.”
For those unfamiliar with the acclaimed Alice Walker novel, or the Oscar-nominated Stephen Spielberg film (starring Whoopi Goldberg), this complex and dark coming-of-age story is difficult to justly describe. From a book by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – directed for the Civic by Michael J. Lasley with musical direction by Teneh B.C. Karimu – “The Color Purple” is challenging and disturbing, yet uplifting and life-affirming. This is one of those musicals where it’s best to just go and see for yourself the pain and triumph, and have the soulful voices wash over you. Whether or not God is in this place, or even with our heroine Celie, his Spirit has no doubt taken notice.
A lot happens in the story, so the musical keeps the characters, their motivations and actions mostly sung-through, up front with some handy chairs the only necessary props. Early 20th-century rural Georgia is more evoked than shown. The chorus starts out singing to the Lord, while Celie (Bridgette Michelle Ludlow) essentially asks if the Creator has forsaken her. Life with her abusive father (Bradley Alan Lowe) is so bad, that marriage to whip-toting Mister (Troy T. Thomas) is marginally better.
Though descended from slaves, Mister considers every person on his land his property, even his children. He frequently reminds Celie she is “ugly” and berates young son Harpo (Brenton Anderson) for being kind-hearted. At least Celie’s sister Nettie (Kendra Randle) manages to escape, promising to write to her from wherever she goes – but Mister intercepts the letters, letting Celie think she is alone in the world.
A strong-woman example comes into Celie’s life in Harpo’s bride Sofia (Rachel Bibbs), who will herself find the limits of standing up to authority in that era. We also meet the magnetic Shug Avery (Ashlee Baskin), the singer who is Mister’s one weakness, and who shakes things up even more than expected by befriending Celie. The large cast also features Miata McMichael as sweet Squeak, and Rayanna Bibbs, Tiffany Gilliam and Alexandria Warfield as the Church Ladies – this culture’s equivilant of a Greek Chorus.
Performances are solid, including Ludlow’s perseverance, Baskin’s complexity, Anderson’s charm, Rachel Bibbs’s full-throated attitude, and Thomas’s complete character arc.
Though bad times come frequently, there are genuine moments of joy and laughter, music in the juke-joint, colorful fabrics, and without spoiling, I’ll note that a measure of justice is meted out.
See – and feel – “The Color Purple” through Oct. 23 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.