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Theater Review: "The Color Purple" At Celebration Theatre

Sara Itkis |
March 19, 2012 | 11:25 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

 Barry Weiss)
Barry Weiss)
You might go into “The Color Purple” expecting a typical musical: colorful costumes, dynamic dancing, voluminous voices, all filling a large theater hall. You’d be surprised then, to see that Celebration Theatre’s production of the show lacks one of the trademarks of a musical: the large theater. Stepping into the building, you will walk into a 99-seat theater, with the farthest seats from the stage reaching no more than three or four rows back. The intimate setting that this provides breaks down the otherwise solid fourth wall of musical theater, and, combined with the sheer exultation of the show, makes it more powerful and moving than you can imagine. 

The Celebration Theatre is a small theater on Santa Monica Blvd that is dedicated to giving a voice to the LGBT community, by producing “innovative, provocative and relevant work that examines the LGBT experience.” Given the type of theater it is, the small stage and seating area is to be expected. What is not expected, however, is a famous Broadway musical, based on a novel by Alice Walker and a film directed by Steven Spielberg, that has been nominated for 11 Tony Awards. This is likely the most well-known production that Celebration Theatre has put on, and it certainly did it justice. With a cast of 17, colorful and constantly changing costumes and hair-dos, and exciting choreography, “The Color Purple” blasts the audience away in a whirlwind of life-affirmation, all to the sound of stirring music, ranging from gospel choir to African drums. 

Opening to a blues-y overture and soft purple lighting, the set is reminiscent of a veranda, with a tree growing behind the fence that stands at the only end of the stage that isn’t in direct contact with the audience. The originally bare stage sees many lighting combinations and several pieces of set come and go throughout the play, including a bed, a miniature stage, a bench, tables, and a metaphorical representation of a ship (...go figure). The small stage never seems cluttered, thanks to the flawless choreography. Not only are the dancing scenes polished and lively, but the fight scenes, too, are perfectly balanced between drama and believability. 

“The Color Purple” tells the story of an African American young girl named Celie (Cesili Williams) who grows into a woman over the course of the play. The plot stretches over forty years (1909-1949). Celie changes in more than age, however. She grows from an abused child with no self-esteem to a confident, independent woman. This production of the musical makes what might otherwise be an overly-dramatic transformation believable and deeply moving. To start with, the countless costume and hair changes assist the transition, in addition to adding to the color and liveliness of the production. The cast doesn’t hurt either. Each member gives a spectacular performance, each with a unique voice and appearance. The three women who appeared on occasion to stir up the audience with soulful gospel music are reminiscent of the female singing narrators of Disney’s Hercules. The cast also includes Michael A. Shepperd, playing Mister, the abusive husband who undergoes a transformation of his own; Constance Jewell Lopez, who plays Sofia, and defines the “sassy black woman” stereotype; and La Toya London, portraying the sexy Shug Avery. Cesili Williams carries the show beautifully, playing the lead role of Celie. Her transformation throughout the play is unbelievable and yet extremely convincing. Her physical height seems to grow, her hair, costume, and posture change gradually, and her very voice expands as her character develops. Her story is an anthem for all who have experienced abuse and oppression. In the emotional finale, the collective cast and the stirring music will bring you to tears, leaving you ready to embrace the goodness and splendor of life. 

As Shug Avery says, “I think it piss God off if anybody even walk past the color purple in a field and not notice it.”

Reach reporter Sara Itkis here.



 

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