Mercury Theatre Mounts A Vibrant COLOR PURPLE

Purple - Shug (Adrienne Walker), Celie (Trisha Jeffrey)It always struck me as curious that the tag line for the stage version of The Color Purple is “the musical about love”.   I’m not quite sure what marketing genius came up with this, as it is definitely not a musical about love, and moreover, what a musical is about should be left for the audience member to decide.   That being said, director L. Walter Stearns has poured much love (and money) into his very clear and focused vision of the musical version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel which opened Monday night at the gloriously rehabbed Mercury Theatre.

Of course The Color Purple is best known through Stephen Speilberg’s 1985 non-Academy Award winning film (11 nominations, no wins), which shot Whoopi Goldberg as Celie to stardom and earned Oprah Winfrey raves as Sofia.   Over two decades later, Ms. Winfrey became a lead producer on the musical version which was directed to great acclaim by our own Gary Griffin and featured Chicago actress Felicia Field’s in the Winfrey role.

Mr. Stearns has brought together a cast that can vocally handle every nook and cranny of the sometimes-difficult pop/gospel score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) and this is far and away musical director Eugene Dizon’s best work since Pacific Overtures some years ago.   Trisha Jeffrey’s take on Celie is honest and moving with the perfect amount of naivety that beckons the audience member to feel her internal pain.  By the time her aria “I’m Here” comes around, she has us hook, line and sinker.   Keithon Gipson also does fine work with his thankless role as Mister.  Somehow, even through all the misogynistic temper tantrums you know the heart of his Mister is good.

As is the case when a big musical are done in an intimate setting, secondary characters have the ability to rise to the forefront.  Such is the case here with Jasondra Johnson as Sofia and Evan Tyrone Martin (who was brilliant as Valentin in Boho’s Kiss of The Spider Woman) as Harpo. Through the shear power of the truth of their performances, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Martin elevate their secondary roles to leading character status.  The rest of ensemble does fine work as well, although there are several times where the comic mugging and constant breaking of the forth wall became tedious.

This Color Purple has one thing going for it that others don’t and that is the unique and vibrant choreography of Brenda Didier, who has a long and symbiotic working relationship with Mr. Stearns.   Ms. Didier brings an added layer of emotional drama and warmth through her intricate and gorgeous dances.

Technically, The Color Purple contains a very functional set by Bob Knuth which is masterfully lit by Nick Belley.   More detail and authenticity could have been levied to the costuming (Frances Maggio) and I must say, many of the wigs looked ridiculous on the actors wearing them.  In fact, Celie’s greying “middle” wig visually took the audience away from viewing her eyes, which is the crux of Ms. Jeffrey’s performance.Purple - Sofia (Jasondra Johnson) Harpo (Evan Martin), Mister (Keithon Gipson)

Kudos to L. Walter Stearns and company for capping off a month of some of the greatest musical theater I have seen in many a year.   Between the recently closed The Last Five Years, the knock your socks off Next To Normal at Drury Lane, and now Mercury’s moving The Color Purple, Chicago audiences can gorge themselves in the great talent this city has to offer.

THE COLOR PURPLE runs through October 27, 2013.  The performance schedule is: Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at2 p.m.  Group discounts of up to 50% are available for groups of 10 or more by calling Tami at Group Theater Tix at 312.423.6612 or 866.809.3075Individual tickets range from $22-$59, and are available online at www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com, over the phone at 773.325.1700, or in person at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago.  For calendar information visit www.TheatreInChicago.com

RELEATED:  WATCH MICHAEL J. ROBERT’S ON-CAMERA INTERVIEW WITH JEANETTE BAYERDELLE, THE ORIGINAL CELIE ON THE FIRST NATIONAL TOUR.