By PAM HARBAUGH
Theater is a temple and the spirit is being served on the stage and in the audience at the Henegar Center for the Arts, where a passionate, full-voiced production of “The Color Purple” will make you want to jump to your feet and yell out “Amen!”
Indeed, it is a rarity to have a production so compelling that moments of truth will provoke both knowing laughter and gut wrenching tears…where the audience will chime in on dialogue and shout out their approval…where you might expect collection plates to be passed around, more than once…and where the singing is so powerful you know it’s being guided by a higher spirit.
This 2005 musical has book by Marsha Norman (“The Secret Garden,” “ ‘night Mother”) and music by Brenda Allee, Stephen Russell and Willis Bray (Broadway newcomers). It is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Alice Walker and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Academy Award-nominated movie.
Opening in 1911 rural Georgia, the story revolves around a young girl named Celie who, by the age of 14, has given birth to her second child fathered by her abusive stepfather. Merely “property” considered no more important than a cow, she is sold to marry “Mister,” a man who keeps Celie from her beloved sister, Nettie. It is not until Celie meets Shug, a honky tonk singer, that she begins to feel beautiful and deserving.
It is this journey toward empowerment through self-love which fuels the storyline of all the characters, even downright mean “Mister.”
As directed by Hank Rion, this elegant production finds the honesty in the characters’ stories and delivers them with a deep well of humor, sensitivity and courage. Mr. Rion is aided by his wonderful cast and a creative team, all of whom come together to present a distinctive theater experience.
Precious Evans finds the heart and soul of ‘Celie.’ She commands her every song and has such a strong stage presence that she’ll blow your socks off…especially when you discover this is her second show. We ache with her, rejoice with her. Ms. Evans also makes us desperately search our handbags for tissues.
Shari Milia’n is just splendid as ‘Nettie.’ Ms. Milia’n has a divine stage presence and a smile that radiates warmth. Her duets with Ms. Evans are beautifully sung. She is the picture of grace in “African Homeland,” a wonderfully evocative scene where rear projections turn a sheet on a clotheslines into a shadowy setting for the story’s brief African narrative.
Shari Kyles brings smart sexy sass and electric verve to ‘Shug,’ especially in the high-spirited “Push the Button.” While Shug does need to take off those high-heels when she gets in the bathtub, she brings sweet, vulnerable moments to the stage. It’s easy to see why everyone falls in love with her.
Actor 2Le’y also traverses an emotional arc in his role of ‘Mister,’ a mean-to-the-bone man who finally sees the light. Leroy Darby makes an ideal “Preacher” in this show. In his role of ‘Harpo,’ Felander Stevenson continues to amaze and entertain. Mr. Stevenson just finished as ‘Donkey’ in “Shrek: The Musical” and here serves up the same energy and stage appeal.
Much of the comic relief here comes from a trio of church ladies — Tanyu Stevenson, Tosha Benton-Parker and Gwendolyn Calloway — who are rather the show’s Greek chorus. They set the stage for action and pretty much tell us how we should respond. They come out in an array of costumes and ever-growing hats and bring so much sass and humor that you begin to smile the moment they step foot on stage.
But for all these wonderful voices, all of which give the show their all, both vocally and expressively, there is Evita Ali Clowney who steals it as ‘Sofia.’ Ms. Clowney has a rich, powerful voice which easily plumbs the depths in “Hell No!” while just as effortlessly soaring heights in “Miss Celie’s Pants.” This is one powerful performer who has been doing theater for 14 years and exudes rightfully earned confidence.
Big, whopping big kudos to the creative team: Conductor Staci Cleveland leads a fantastic 12-piece orchestra; scenic designer Brighid Reppert creates a simple but effective legs and backdrop plus a host of scenic units to suggest ramshackle homes, a forest, a store that flips this way and that; lighting designer Steve Rossi paints all with brilliant purples, oranges, blues and more; sound designer Thom Restivo works the brand new sound system to bring out the voices loud and clear (yay!); and vocal director Kaimi Lucker brings out drop dead gorgeous voices; costume designer Andrew Cline hits the mark; and first time choreographer Ayonna Andrews carves out inventive, high spirited dance numbers.
As Shug says: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Well, folks, you’ve got that on stage right now at the Henegar. It would be a sin to miss it.
For a video of opening night response, click here.
SIDE O’ GRITS: ‘The Color Purple’ runs through Feb. 8 at the Henegar Center for the Arts. 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Curtain is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $26 general, $23 seniors and military and $16 students. WARNING: The show has adult themes, brief nudity and mild language. It is not recommended for children under 13 years. Call 321-723-8698 or visit www.Henegar.org.