The latest Paper Mill production is a show to be savored
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn opens its 80th Anniversary season with The Color Purple, the award-winning musical about southern black women in the early part of the 20th century. This version of the show is based on the 2015 Broadway revival, winner of Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Director for John Doyle. Mr. Doyle helms the Paper Mill’s production, presenting us with a classic story set to jazz, blues, and gospel music. It is a show to be savored.
Playwright Marsha Norman’s script is based on both Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the movie adaptation which starred Whoopi Goldberg. It tells the tale of Celie (Adrianna Hicks), abused by the man who fathers her two children and takes them away from her, forced into a loveless marriage to the equally-abusive Mister (Gavin Gregory). Her beloved sister Nettie (N’jameh Camara) is sent to Africa as a missionary, and a despondent Celie loses contact with her. The strong-willed Sofia (Carrie Compere) marries Mister’s son Harpo (Jay Donnell). When he turns abusive, instead of submitting she leaves him, an act that opens Celie’s eyes to new ideas. When blues singer Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), Mister’s former lover, comes to town, Celie finds the love she’s been denied and the inner strength it brings.
The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray is a delight. The rousing gospel number “Mysterious Ways” kicks off the show. It goes on into jazzy numbers such as “Too Beautiful for Words”; beautiful ballads like “What About Love?” and the title tune; and comic treats “Hell No!,” “Any Little Thing,” and “Miss Celie’s Pants.” The entire company’s riveting singing enlivens the score, essential for a show with as many musical numbers as this one. John Doyle’s musical staging is spot-on.
The entire cast is a delight
The cast is magnificent. Adrianna Hicks expertly charts Celie’s path from a downtrodden, unloved nobody to a woman who is strong enough to run her own business, find love with another woman, and lay a powerful curse on her husband. Carrie Compere’s Sofia runs an emotional course from aggression to humiliation to regained strength of will with enormous acting skill. Carla R. Stewart is a passion-powered Shug Avery. She finds a strong deep love in Celie yet lets her fear of losing her allure overwhelm her. Jay Donnell delivers a strong comic performance as Harpo, while Gavin Gregory as Mister charts a bad man’s fall and redemption with emotional power. Special mention goes to the Church Ladies — Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West — who act as a comic Greek chorus throughout the show. They are a delight.
John Doyle’s scenic design — three overlapping panels of wooden planks covered with hanging chairs — encompasses everything from the interior of the local church to the African countryside, enhancing the drama unfolding on stage. In this he is ably assisted by his design colleagues Jane Cox on lights and Dan Moses Schreier on sound. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are a visual delight, bringing out the essence of each character during their journeys throughout the show.
The Color Purple is about the transformative power of love. The show’s creators succeed in presenting this truth without over-sentimentalizing or sugar-coating it. This is a fine musical, given a staging worthy of it. I strongly recommend seeing the Paper Mill Playhouse’s excellent production of The Color Purple.