Workshop Theatre’s "The Color Purple" Offers a Beautiful Rainbow of Colors for Columbia Audiences - a review by Stephen Ingle

When a stage musical is based on a very popular movie, in turn based on a very popular novel, it is often almost impossible to accept the new format, actors, and plot adaptations as genuine. However, when I attended Workshop Theatre’s presentation of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, I had no problem separating the live performance from the film. This was because the stage production was so fantastic. For those not familiar with the film plot, The Color Purple is a coming-of-age story about Celie, an African-American girl (Devin Anderson) in the early 1900s who is forced by her father to marry "Mister" (Shawn Logan) in exchange for some livestock. Mister mistreats her, abuses her, forces her to wait on him and all of his sons hand and foot, and breaks off all communication between Celie and her sister/best friend Nettie (Kanika Moore.) This naturally causes Celie to feel completely alone in this world, and hopeless that she will never see Nettie again or ever know what it’s like to feel happy, safe, and secure. The mirror image to this story line is that of Sofia (Michelle Rivera) who is married to Mister’s son Harpo (Bobby Rogers). Sofia is a very strong-willed woman who refuses to let any man abuse her or tell her what to do and, in fact, is the abuser to her husband. However, when she leaves Harpo (ending up as a maid for a white family) she finds that her temper lands her in jail. When she is released, she is a shell of the woman she once was, and has become docile and closed off. caption

The other influence on Celie’s life comes in the form of a sassy singer named Shug Avery (Katrina Blanding). She is a boozy, juke joint singer, and the object of Mister’s desire. Her character reflects the independence that Celie so desperately needs, but also reflects the sadness of living a lonely life. All of the performances are, for lack of a better word, riveting. Although they do not really look 14 years-old, Devin Anderson (Celie) and Kanika Moore (Nettie) truly inspire both through their touching and playful scenes together and their beautiful harmonies during their duet. Devin Anderson, however, does a spectacular job guiding the plot along through Celie’s life. As Sofia, Michelle Rivera performs at a level that could rival Oprah’s depiction of the film role. Her transition from strong, loud, and independent matriarch to beaten down and muted victim was handled brilliantly by the actress. As Shug, Katrina Blanding seamlessly handles the role of a gin-soaked club singer turned responsible married woman, and the scene between her and Celie where she helps Celie discover her femininity is performed with both sensitivity and effectiveness. Another performance worth mentioning is that of Shawn Logan as Mister. From the character you love to hate as the abusive and controlling husband, to becoming a submissive pleaser to Celie, his performance perfectly illustrates the traits of shameful, funny, and charming.

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All of the aforementioned kudos would not have been possible without the stellar direction of Jocelyn Sanders, beautiful musical direction of Roland Haynes, Jr., and energetic and inspirational choreography of Barbara Howse-Diemer. Unlike straight plays where there is one director, musicals are unique because of the combined visions of these three roles. In The Color Purple, it appeared that all three of these brilliant directors came together and shared a vision that paints a masterpiece of sadness, inspiration, humor, and humanity. Typically in big musicals with huge casts, one’s eye will directly be drawn to a weak link or “dead zone” in the cast. It is always a nice surprise to not be able to find one. Additionally, hats off to the costume designer Alexis Doktor specifically for the wonderful African costumes that took the audience to a whole new place, time, and feeling of joy. Unfortunately, the one African scene where the village is attacked by some sort of outside forces was very unclear. When the members of the tribe ran off, the sound effects were muddy. Had I not seen the movie and known it was an invasion, I would have thought they were running from an oncoming storm. In fact, as has been the problem with other musicals, some of the dialogue and songs suffered from the lack of microphones. Also, the show does run very long at almost 3 hours. There are several extraneous scenes towards the end with songs that simply delay the wonderful ending we are all waiting for. However, that is my issue with Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, and not with anybody connected with this production.  Jocelyn Sanders weaves together a beautiful tapestry that even Alice Walker (the original novelist) would be proud of. The Color Purple is a show that will quite literally make you laugh, cry, sing, dance, and cheer.

~ Stephen Ingle

Show Dates: March 20-24 & 27-30

Show Times: 8:00 p.m. except March 24, which is a  3:00 p.m. matinee

Prices: $22 for adults, $20 for seniors/military, $16 for students, $12 for children

Contact the box office at 803-799-6551 for ticket information, or visit http://www.workshoptheatre.com.

 

Review -- Passing Strange at Trustus

  Passing Strange is one part rock concert specifically tailored for theatre aficionados, and two parts Broadway play that's particularly accessible to artists and musicians.  Incorporating elements from both forms, the show is an autobiographical reminiscence of one young man's search for artistic, ethnic and spiritual identity.  Raising some interesting points and issues, the new production at Trustus Theatre never forgets to keep the audience rocking, even as they may ponder larger questions.

The show was written by Stew (the stage name of musician Mark Stewart, i.e. like "Bono" or "Sting"), who also composed the score with Heidi Rodewald; both worked with original stage director Annie Dorsen (who gets an "in collaboration with" credit) to realize Stew's vision. In addition to Stew the real-life author, there is Stew the narrator, played by himself on Broadway and here by Samuel McWhite, and Stew the Youth, played by Mario McClean. The Narrator alternately sings and tells of his formative years as a teen and young adult, as the Youth brings them to life on stage. Sometimes the Narrator, with the perspective and wisdom of a mature adult, explains what the Youth was really thinking; at other times he makes jokes about his younger self's naiveté, or wistfully shares an insight realized too late.  Just as often, McClean shows the audience the depth and intensity of a sensitive artist's sorrows, hopes, and joys, as McWhite, backed by a capable 5-piece band (led by Musical Director Tom Beard on keyboards) sings Stew's often witty and self-deprecating lyrics. It's an inventive narrative technique, since one is never quite sure whose perspective is the more accurate.

Both McClean and McWhite (and you couldn't find a more fortuitous combination of names to play different aspects of the same character!) have pleasant, rich voices that easily adapt to the show's meandering journey through musical styles, from rockers to ballads, and McClean displays an impressive vocal range.  McClean also captures his character's utter innocence in his mid-teens, then convincingly grows into a gifted, if fairly cocky, young intellectual; meanwhile the world-weary Narrator reminds the audience of the choices he might have made along the way.  Towards the show's end, the suffering on his face is palpable McWhite attempts to relay difficult truths; without saying a word, he conveys both reluctant acceptance and defiant denial of the lessons his older self strives to teach.

Stew the composer is a rock guitarist, but shows an impressive mastery of just about every musical form. Some songs, especially those set in the earlier part of his life, are smooth soul, and recall acts like the 5th Dimension.  Others are bluesy, with McWhite channeling artists like B. B. King. Later numbers reflect anarchist metal and punk influences; quite a few reminded me of Pete Townshend's softer, piano compositions from his solo projects, and from the classic Tommy, songs like "Welcome" and "Sally Simpson."  Stew won a Tony for his book, but not for his score, however, and while all the songs are pleasant enough, there are no "Let the Sun Shine In" anthems to be found.  I must note that often his rhymes, while amusing, border on the obvious, and at times can be almost Dr. Seuss-like in their simplicity. Still, that too can be used for good comedic effect, as when every possible rhyme for "keys" is used to describe how a generous, trusting European offers her apartment to the Youth; he compares that with the way a snobby American might reject him, concluding "bitch, please - she gave me her keys."

Katrina Garvin, as Stew's mother,  makes the most of her moments on stage. Her voice is just as beautiful as it was in last summer's Smokey Joe's Cafe, and here she gets to show off her acting skills, alternately stern, loving, comical, or a combination of all three.  Four performers depict every other character, and one might think there was a hidden ensemble of another dozen singers somewhere.  It's just the four, however, and each has one or more meaty character parts. Terrence Henderson, who doubles as choreographer,  chews the scenery shamelessly and hilariously as an over-the-top performance artist, while Kanika Moore is at first scary and authoritarian as a nihilist/revolutionary/Bohemian, then softens as we see her genuine affection for the Youth.  Her demand that he "have a conversation with the hand!" is just priceless.  Avery Bateman gets lots of laughs as a suburban, church-choir princess, then is sweet, appealing and vulnerable as the Youth's Dutch girlfriend, while Kendrick Marion does fine supporting work as assorted friends and colleagues in each of those settings.

One of the show's many ironies is that in a theatre world, and a local theatre community, where good roles for actors of color are hard to find, all of the performers are African-American, yet they spend much of their time convincingly playing Dutch and Germans. And that is another irony: although the search for meaning in life and art is universal, Stew's journey is different than one might expect.  A baby boomer born in Los Angeles, he might easily have been one of the children answering James Brown with "I'm black and I'm proud!"   Stew, however, is black and ambivalent, verging on (but not quite) self-loathing. Growing up in a traditional, religious, middle-class home, his rebellion is not against 'the man," but against his mother's church, and the societal expectations placed on him by his peers, that as an intellectual, he will naturally gravitate into a Cliff Huxtable-style respectability. Instead, he forms a punk band, then flees first to Amsterdam, then Berlin, where he can find his musical voice.  The supreme irony, however, is that in a culture oblivious to his color, the Youth affects an oppressed background that he hasn't completely experienced, compelling his German peers to concede "his ghetto angst is far superior to ours."  It's quite a courageous move for the author Stew to admit that to some extent he exploited his own heritage for artistic acceptance, and when the Youth asks (paraphrasing from memory here) if anyone really understands what it's like to struggle on the streets of South Central, the Narrator stops the action, wryly observing that no one in the show, characters or performers, really understands that.  The show's title, a quote from Othello that refers to a fascinating, exotic tale, also is a reference to an accusation that just as African-Americans once tried to "pass" for white, for acceptance, so the Youth is passing for ghetto, to be accepted as a performer.

Director Chad Henderson wisely emphasizes the non-theatrical aspects of the play. Bland white drapes suggest the sheltered and clean-cut background of the youth, then open to reveal a Europe represented by vivid abstract paintings, exploding with color and vitality.  (Full disclosure: Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts  partnered with Trustus on the original art featured in the production, and all works can be bid on via silent auction though the run of the show. Most of the artists as well as Henderson have been featured in the magazine, and we heartily encourage you to support local art and artists this way.  This writer's involvement with all of that, however, has been limited to drinking a beer or two while looking at the paintings, and saying "Wow - cool art.") There is no set, nor is one needed; all action plays out naturally in front of the live band, with the occasional table, chair or hand prop used when necessary.  When characters are on stage but not directly involved in a scene, they behave naturally, listening to music on headphones, writing some private composition, or occasionally sharing a joint with the band. Yet when the time comes for a choral number, often you hear their voices while they remain focused on their personal business, seemingly uninvolved in the action. It's a technique we also saw in the recent Spring Awakening, and the result is quite effective.  Director, Musical Director, and Choreographer reunite with cast members Bateman and Marion from that show, which explored similar dramatic territory: intellect searching for truth in the midst of youth and sexuality (and Germany!) set to contemporary rock music, and performed by an energetic and talented young cast.

At the recent Jasper release party, I joked with a friend about a review he once got where the critic didn't realize how much she enjoyed the show. She detailed how good the performances were, but griped about the play itself.  So skip to the next paragraph if you are interested solely in this specific production's qualities, which are excellent.  I must commend Trustus for yet again taking a risk, being adventurous, and producing not one but two bold musical choices in quick succession, both tackling controversial themes via non-traditional storytelling and contemporary rock music.  (The composers for both Passing Strange and Spring Awakening were respected but non-mainstream rock artists who transitioned to musical theatre, and both shows premiered within months of each other in New York.)  Yet for me, the universality of this show's themes was severely undercut by an unsatisfying conclusion, or lack thereof, a gripe I also made about the generally enjoyable Spring Awakening.  The Youth asserts that "life is a mistake that only art can correct," while the ostensibly wiser Narrator cautions him that "song is a bong" (again, those witty but nursery rhyme-ish lyrics) and that what the youth is looking for in life can only be found in art.  Which are two sides of the same coin, in a way.  The Narrator maintains that love is the highest power of all... but what I longed for was a stronger declaration.  Either an extra scene showing wisdom that led the Youth to mature into the Narrator, or a song channeling The Faces'  "Oo La La" that clarifies how the Youth will have to learn it all on his own, or an admission that even now, the Narrator doesn't have all the answers.  In many ways, I was left with the impression that his former girlfriend, the German nihilist, might still see the author falling prey to the same weakness: mining his own history for immediate effect, in lieu of finding a deeper emotional truth. The ground he covers has been done before, and better, in everything from Tommy and Quadrophenia, to Purple Rain and Pippin. Still, if this was Stew's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I look forward to whatever next project becomes his Ulysses.

That said, the less one has seen the artist's struggle to find his identity depicted on stage before, the more one will marvel at this show's existential themes, acted out live with an accompanying rock band.  As above, Passing Strange is theatre for non-theatre-goers, pop music with an intellectual edge, an art exhibition with music and lyrics. Go for the art,  go for the talented cast, and go because this sort of show, one that addresses timeless yet intangible questions while actually entertaining you, just isn't done often enough in Columbia.  Passing Strange runs through April 14th; call the Trustus box office at 254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel