The Broadway version of THE COLOR PURPLE (and the Broadway tour) played in big houses where even if you had a seat in the orchestra, you were still pretty far away. My recollection of the musical, believe it or not, is that it was lovely but not particularly exciting. And before I saw SpeakEasy’s production, I couldn’t remember any of the songs.
Leave it to director Paul Daigneault to know it would work like a house afire in a small theater. SpeakEasy Stage’s THE COLOR PURPLE (playing at the BCA through Feb.8th) raises the roof with its foot stomping ensemble numbers, its high stakes drama and those hilarious quips from the gossiping “Greek chorus” telling you “who’s hoochie coochin’ with who.” You’re right in the thick of it, even if you’re seated in the back of the Wimberly. And you’ll leave singing Shug Avery’s “Push Da Button,” I guarantee it.
Daigneault and music director Nicholas James Connell have assembled an extraordinary group of performers who summon each of Alice Walker’s characters to vibrant life and who embody the Russell/Willis/Bray songs with a powerful urgency. Marsha Norman’s book captures the desperation and joy in Walker’s harrowing story of Celie (an intense Lovely Hoffman) and her sister (a shimmering Aubin Wise) as they try to escape an abusive father (David Jiles, Jr. who is a strong presence in several roles). Alas, Celie’s escape only lands her in the clutches of another frightening man (Maurice Emmanuel Parent who transforms himself brilliantly in the course of the story).
Christian Bufford’s choreography for SpeakEasy is one of the reasons it pulses with energy. The high spirits and humor in the dancing lift the performance off the stage. Crystin Gilmore as Shug, the red hot crooner everyone wants to hear, especially Celie’s smitten husband, Mister, is another reason to see SpeakEasy’s production. Her erotic delivery of a lyric is a sight to hear and behold…and Parent’s tortured gyrations when she sings are downright hilarious in the middle of the spectacular rhythmic dance.
Valerie Houston, as Sofia, too, makes this production radiate with electricity. Her “Hell, No!” to a “man with a raised hand” song is one of the show’s gems. Her crowing relationship to her subservient husband (the wonderfully funny Jared Dixon) is the comedic counterbalance to Celie’s woes. Anich D’Jae gives a wry performance as the squeaky voiced rival to Sofia. (Hell, no, she doesn’t stand a chance.)
Some of Boston’s best performers grace the SpeakEasy show: Cliff Odle, Kelton Washington and Kira Cowan shine in multiple roles. Each and every actor adds to the forceful scope of the story. With THE COLOR PURPLE, SpeakEasy demonstrates why they’re one of Boston’s best theaters.