By Lynn Venhaus
In its Muny premier, “The Color Purple” is a momentous experience — one that cannot be missed for its historic and landmark significance, but also because it’s one of the finest ever ensembles in its 104 seasons.
The cast takes us on an unforgettable emotional journey, and their glorious harmonies soar into the summer night.
Delivering a story of uncommon courage and grace in a harrowing account of deeply rooted cruelty and oppression, the core group of female principals makes us feel their sorrows, love, pain, and indomitable spirit.
To paraphrase Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, sisters are doing it for themselves (referencing a 1985 Eurythmics female empowerment song). And what a sisterhood it is!
In 1909, Celie is a humble, hard-working 14-year-old poor black girl living in rural Georgia, who has delivered two babies whose father is her father, and Pa (Duane Martin Foster) has taken them away.
Several years later, he makes a deal to give Celie to Albert “Mister” Johnson, an emotionally and physically abusive widower and farmer, to care for his unruly children and serve him and his family.
She spared her sister, Nettie, so that she could follow her dream of being a teacher. Unbeknownst to Celie for a long time, the compassionate Nettie winds up with a missionary family in Africa, and is eventually tracked down by Shug Avery, another important influence in Celie’s life.
Celie has gone from one house of horrors to another. This is unsettling, of course, but her unwavering faith sees her through these tough times, as do the people who raise her up. She has always found solace with her sister and in church, and as time passes, it is the community that relies on her that pays back her kindness.
While taking care of Mister’s home, the nurturing Celie meets the glamorous, worldly, and determined nightclub chanteuse Shug Avery. They eventually share a romantic relationship and deep bond despite the singer having an on-again, off-again affair with Mister and a marriage to Grady.
One of Mister’s grown children, Harpo, marries Sofia, and she is a strong-willed free spirit, known for her independence and speaking her mind, with her phrase: “Hell, no!” even a song title. She cannot be ‘tamed,’ but she loves Harpo. Sofia’s stance will bring her serious harm.
Over the course of several decades, what the women learn, how they grow and overcome obstacles will tug at our hearts, so that the mercy shown in the second act leads to triumph– and for the men too.
Marsha Norman wrote this tough adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning touchstone novel, a National Book Award winner in 1982, which told Celie’s story through letters she wrote to her sister and children.
For director Steven Spielberg, Menno Meyjes adapted the book into a 1985 movie that garnered 11 Academy Award nominations (but famously did not win any). A new movie based on the musical is set for a December 2023 release.
The heart and soul of any version is Celie, and it’s no fluke that both actresses who played Celie on Broadway — LaChanze in the original 2005 production and Cynthia Erivo in the 2016 revival — won Tony Awards (Director John Doyle’s re-imagining also won the Tony Award for Best Revival).
In this powerhouse role, Anastacia McCleskey is transcendent, bringing out the dignity, heartbreak, and virtues of a true survivor of overwhelming trauma. This tour de force performance is deeply felt and delivered with remarkable strength and skill.
Her eyes glistening with tears, McCleskey became a bona fide star in her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” in which she expresses self-love and perseverance, and left us in awe. The thunderous ovation that followed was one of the longest in memory. Goosebump moments, indeed.
When she leads the cast in the finale, a fervent reprise of “The Color Purple,” it’s impossible for the audience to not have been affected by this sublime show.
Yes, it’s gut-wrenching, but it’s also about healing, resilience, and the mighty power of love. Throughout our history, we have learned that we should never forget what’s happened before, those teachable moments that make us better people.
The score includes gospel, jazz, ragtime, blues, and African beats, with songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray that bring out the purpose, yearnings and period of these early 20th century lives.
The cast is stellar from leads to brief parts, evident from the Sunday church services depicted in “Mysterious Ways,” with Omega Jones belting out praise as the preacher and Alexis J. Rosten, Shantel Cribbs and Melanie Loren instant crowd-pleasers as the supremely talented trio of church ladies Doris, Darlene, and Jarene.
You will quickly discover what a joyful noise this ensemble will make, their strong vocals providing a sense of faith, hope and charity that church communities share.
Nasia Thomas, who stood out in last year’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” is impressive as Celie’s beloved sister Nettie. You can feel a palpable bond between them, as if they were real sisters. Their duets are beautiful, especially the touching “Our Prayer.”
In the showy role as the irrepressible Shug, singer Tracee Beazer sashays across the stage with ultra-confidence. She leads the big splashy number “Push Da Button” but it’s her poignant ballads, “Too Beautiful for Words” and “The Color Purple,” that showcase her vocal strengths, as well as the exquisite “What About Love?”, a tender duet with Celie.
Nicole Michelle Haskins as Sofia and Gilbert Domally as Harpo reprise their roles from the acclaimed 2019 Drury Lane Theatre production in Chicago and endear as a dynamic couple — and as individuals. They have a fun, playful duet “Any Little Thing.”
As the villain Mister, Evan Tyrone Martin inspires a gamut of emotions as the heartless husband perpetuating a long cycle of suffering. After he’s cursed and lost everything, “The Mister Song” begins his redemption.
Fine in supporting roles are Erica Durham as the colorful Squeak, Sean Walton as flashy Grady, and Jos N. Banks as lively Buster. Muny favorite Kennedy Holmes portrays Olivia and Rodney Thompson is Adam, Celie’s children.
The staging on a simple slab with different levels depicting various locales is a smart move by scenic designer Arnel Sanciano, which narrows our focus to the human interaction. Other accoutrements, such as Harpo’s sign for his juke joint and fields of purple flowers, are deftly handled on the LED screen by video designer Paul Deziel.
The creative team is new to the Muny but not the material. Director Lili-Anne Brown, music director Jermaine Hill and choreographer Breon Arzell were responsible for the Drury Lane Theatre production in fall 2019 that received seven Joseph Jefferson Awards nominations and won two — for directing and supporting role (Haskins).
Their collaboration has transferred well to the large outdoor stage. Every part of this exercise is told with attentiveness and passion.
The trio’s vision is brought vividly to life by the top-tier ensemble and their team, including outstanding craftsmanship by lighting designer Heather Gilbert and sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge. Production stage manager Jhanae Bonnick keeps everything at a brisk pace.
The costumes are a panoply of 40 years of style, with costume designer Samantha C. Jones dressing a church-going community in their Sunday best, what they wear to work and play in a Southern town, and how they dress up for a juke joint. Wig designer is Kelly Jordan.
With Celie designing pants in the second act, a striking array of comfortable yet stylish outfits are on display. That celebration number “Miss Celie’s Pants” marks such a turning point in the story and is one big smile.
If you believe, as I do, that if you spread light and love in the world, and are a good person, then the universe responds in kind. That is ultimately why Celie’s story resonates. Yes, she endured hell on earth, but she never gave up her belief in goodness, and finally realized her worth as a human being.
Purple symbolizes strength, transformation, power, wisdom and bravery, and all meanings can be applied here.
What an inspiration Alice Walker’s book was to the world 40 years ago, and continues to be, and what a distinguished accomplishment this show is for The Muny and St. Louis.
The Muny presents the musical “The Color Purple” Aug. 3-9 at 8:15 p.m. nightly on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.