Mercury Theater finds the emotional core in sprawling ‘The Color Purple’


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Perhaps you heard the cheers, sobs and stamping feet coming from Southport street? Well, that was the sound of the opening night audience at Mercury Theater’s The Color Purple, a searing and emotionally resonant production directed by L. Walter Stearns.

This is my first encounter with the 2005 musical adaptation of the beloved Alice Walker novel — I missed the multiple touring productions that stopped in Chicago over the last few years. I’d heard from various sources that that production, directed by Chicago’s Gary Griffin, was a visual spectacle but bloated in its storytelling.

Watching Mercury Theater’s intimate yet epic staging, I certainly noticed sections and scenes that could easily be trimmed to hone in on the core story concerning the emotional journey of a young, timid African American girl named Celie, who’s experienced more in her first 14 years than many of us do in an entire lifetime. (In fact, acclaimed director John Doyle has done just that by cutting 30 minutes from the original script and delivering a critically praised London production playing at the renowned Menier Chocolate Factory.)

However, Mercury’s cast is so fiercely committed to the material, you easily see through the excess. As Celie (the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film — or, one could argue, the role that made Whoopi famous), Trisha Jeffrey brings great vulnerability and grit, as well as a piercing cry of a singing voice. Adrienne Walker makes for a sassy yet sincere Shug Avery, who helps Celie come out of her shell in more ways than one. As the proud and defiant Sofia, Celie’s sister-in-law, Jasondra Johnson has the powerhouse voice and the presence that makes you sit up and take notice. But the real stars here are the church lady greek chorus (Sydney Charles, Carrie Louise Abernathy and Brittany L. Bradshaw) who serve up tight vocal harmony (deft musical direction by Eugene Dizon) and attitude for days.

After Mercury’s fun but ultimately ho-hum Barnum, I was mighty impressed by this production, which seemed to pull out all the stops. Get yourself to Mercury Theater and be prepared to be blown away both emotionally and musically.

“The Color Purple” plays through October 27 at Mercury Theater. More info here >

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