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FRESH FACES AND VIBRANT VOCALS MAKE “THE COLOR PURPLE” A ROYAL TREAT | Review by Robert W. McDowell

Fresh faces and vibrant vocals make the current national tour of the high-octane Broadway musical THE COLOR PURPLE a royal treat for delighted patrons of the beautiful new Durham Performing Arts Center. Based on the 1982 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author Alice Walker and the Oscar®-nominated 1985 Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture, this inspirational musical about the triumph of love and the human spirit over decades of degradation, misery, and abuse features a sassy script by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman and an stirring score by Grammy Award® winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

Dayna Jarae Dantzler

Dayna Jarae Dantzler is a real Georgia peach as Alice Walker’s long-suffering heroine Celie Johnson, who has drunk so deep from the well of bitterness that it takes decades for the healing power of love to revive her sagging spirit. Dantzler’s charismatic characterization and show-stopping solo on “I’m Here” are all by themselves worth the price of admission. But there is more, much more, to entertain and uplift in this handsome and heartwarming presentation, produced by Phoenix Entertainment Joyful Noisemakers, LLC and staged with real genius and great gusto by Broadway director Gary Griffin and choreographer Donald Byrd.

Set designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, costume designer Paul Tazewell, and hair designer Charles G. LaPointe all reprise their roles in the original Broadway production of THE COLOR PURPLE, which means that the clapboard houses of the red-dirt farms of Georgia, the posh living room of a mansion in Memphis, and a fantasy sequence set in Africa are reproduced in vivid detail, as is a whole cavalcade of period fashions and hair styles, circa 1909 to 1949. Moreover, music director Jasper Grant, conductor Joe Ryan Joseph (piano), associate conductor Angela Estes (keyboards), Bryan Connell (reeds), Andrew Hoesl (trumpet), Gregory Snyder (guitar), Thomas Brinkley (bass), Jeff Farrello (drums), and Jeff Snider (percussion) make the musical gems in this memorable score sparkle, smoothly segueing from exuberant black gospel to gut-wrenching blues to show tunes.

Edward C. Smith

In the beginning, Edward C. Smith makes the whip-cracking Mister (a.k.a. Albert Johnson) mean as the proverbial snake; but this fine actor is later able to earn audience sympathy when Mister turns over a new leaf after his principal punching bag, Celie, kicks him to the curb and curses him to boot. Pam Trotter is a veritable force of nature as Mister’s son Harpo’s no-nonsense wife, the indomitable Sofia, large and in charge in both the literal and figurative sense. When faced with disrespect or abuse, Sofia shouts “Hell No!” and thereby becomes a role model for abused women everywhere.

The Color Purple at the Durham Performing Arts Center

Taprena Augustine

Taprena Augustine is a regular ball of fire as Mister’s super-sexy mistress, the blues singer Shug Avery; and Traci Allen is delightful as Celie’s beloved sister and correspondent Nettie Harris. Indeed, Allen sings beautifully, and her Nettie is a palpable presence even when Nettie and Celie are separated by decades and thousands of miles.

Lee Edward Colston II and Allison Semmes garner plenty of laughs as Mister’s initially shiftless and emotionally battered son Harpo Johnson and Harpo’s ditzy waitress-girlfriend Squeak. Colston’s mouse-that-roared evolution and Semmes’ sublime silliness are both highly commendable. So are the amusing antics and soulful singing of Deaun Parker, Virlinda Stanton, and Nesha Ward as Church Ladies Jarene, Darlene, and Doris, respectively, who form a veritable Greek chorus, acerbically commenting on the action. And Kadejah One and Keith Adams sparkle as the Church Soloist and Shug’s spendthrift, womanizing husband Grady.

On the sinister side, Phillip Brandon paints a thoroughly hissable portrait of Ol Mister, who’s so ruthlessly domineering and diabolical that he makes Mister look like a milquetoast; and Mark Hall is a caution as Celie’s sexually abusive Pa (actually her stepfather), who repeatedly molests her and twice impregnates Celie and then gives away her babies away, shortly after they are born.

The musical staging of director Gary Griffin and choreographer Donald Byrd is ingenious and effervescent from the opening song, with Celie and Nettie playing pattycake (“Huckleberry Pie”); to the big gospel number (“Mysterious Ways”), where the entire congregation praises the lord in high steps and Pentecostal cadences; to Shug Avery’s show-stopping juke-joint bump-and-grind on “Push the Button”; to the spectacular “African Homeland” fantasia; to the comical “Miss Celie’s Pants” segment. THE COLOR PURPLE, with its brand-new cast and their seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy, is a musical that is simply not to be missed. It will surely be one of the most fondly remembered shows the 2010 theater season.

SECOND OPINION: May 27th Durham, NC HERALD-SUN review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/7673492/article–Color-Purple–will-move-you—again?instance=main_article and May 19th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/7471590/article–THE-COLOR-PURPLE–BACK-FOR-ITS-SECOND-ACT?instance=main_article (NOTE: You must register first to read this article.); and May 25th Raleigh, NC NEWS & OBSERVER preview: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/05/25/498570/the-return-of-purple.html.

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents THE COLOR PURPLE at 7:30 p.m. May 27, 8 p.m. May 28, 2 and 8 p.m. May 29, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. May 30 at the DPAC, in the American Tobacco District, at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701. TICKETS: $25-$65, with a 20 percent discount for groups of 10+. BOX OFFICE:

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by Robert W. McDowell
Robert McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review of Raleigh, NC. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.E-mail RobertM748[at]aol.com to start your FREE subscription to this weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter.

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