REVIEW | Musical Adaptation of ‘The Color Purple’ Stands On Its Own

CenterStage at the Jewish Community Center has a hit in their sold-out production of “The Color Purple” musical adaptation. Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with a book by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Marsha Norman (a Louisville native),  “The Color Purple” features highly entertaining blues, jazz, ragtime and pop-inspired music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray that allows this adaptation stand on its own feet. 

“The Color Purple” runs through April 6 at the Jewish Community Center. Most performances are sold out, but last-minute rush tickets may be available.  

Set in the early half of the 20th century, “The Color Purple” is a story about resilience and redemption in an African American southern family. Shy and frightened Celie (Tymika Prince) is married off to Mister, an abusive widower (Gordon L. Crawford) who, in a fit of spite, separates Celie from her beloved sister Nettie (Frances Lewis). Celie helps raise his children, including Harpo (Marcus Fisher), who marries the strong-willed Sofia (Patricia Mathison). Sofia, along with Mister’s beloved nightclub singer Shug Avery (Sajuana Motley) form strong bonds with Celie and help her claim her own power as a woman.

Mathison performs one of the show’s most rousing numbers, Sofia’s defiant “Hell No,” and Motley’s quiet sensuality breaks out in her juke-joint solo “Push da Button,” proving why Shug Avery is the most desired woman in the community. But this is Celie’s story. Prince delivers a knock-out performance as the traumatized girl gradually transformed into confident woman through Shug’s love. Celie’s numbers are a grand canvas for Prince’s show-stopping voice, especially the climactic “I’m Here,” where Celie’s hard-won self-love finally shines.

Artistic director John Leffert usually directs CenterStage’s musicals, but this entry in the company’s strong season is helmed by Louisville director Rush Trowel, whose entertainment industry experience shows in the production’s big, bold voices and energetic production numbers like “Brown Betty” and “Push da Button Dance,” as well as a particularly effective Greek chorus of clucking church ladies (Erica D. Bledshaw, Alyicia Underwood, Angela Williams-Buckner), who help the narrative along with a dose of comic relief.

Despite its often-traumatic subject matter, this show is a true crowd-pleaser, with a strong cross-demographic appeal due to acclaimed source material and the legacy of Stephen Spielberg’s memorable 1985 film adaptation. The stage adaptation shares more show-biz DNA with the film than Walker’s quiet novel, with robust musical numbers standing in for Spielberg’s lush visuals.

One significant departure for the musical from the source is the depiction of violence — most of the violence, which is directed primarily at women in this story, is conducted off-stage. That softens, somewhat, the horrific treatment the women, especially Celie and Sofia, suffered. But it also makes this show a little more accessible to younger audiences, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The run is playing to sold-out houses, and this strong period piece still has vital messages to convey about overcoming abuse, strong women, and the redemptive power of love. 

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