Hillbarn’s final show of its 73rd season is The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name. The story winds its way through the bruises and beauty that life has to offer a poor black woman living in the Southern US from 1909-1945. This production is packed with emotion and power, and yes, plenty of purple.
Walker’s most famous work has enjoyed success in many forms making its debut in 1982 and becoming a Pulitzer Prize winning novel in 1983. The Steven Spielberg film adaptation followed soon thereafter. Finally, the musical adaptation (with book by Marsha Norman, and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) hit the Broadway stage in 2005.
The story covers a community under duress over 36 years on two continents. The main story takes place in the Southern US in a poor black farming community where men are expected to be rough with their wives, and wives are expected to obey, although sometimes their roles are reversed. As in Walker’s novel, a parallel portion of the story takes place in Africa where a small group of missionaries travel to help a village find God. In both countries, their church is a central focus in their lives though their faith is severely tested.
The main characters include Celie (Leslie Ivy), Nettie (Jacqueline Dennis), Mr.__ (Anthone D. Jackson), Shug Avery (Dawn L. Troupe), Sofia (Jihan Sabir), and Harpo (Brian M. Landry). Beyond the principals, there is a large ensemble supporting the action.
The story touches on abuse in various forms, but it’s not just about strife. It’s about love, and the relationships between people, not necessarily based on strict gender roles. The story explores love in various forms including the love of a sibling, love of God, love of one’s self, and love of another in a gender blind context. Part of love is being able to appreciate beauty. In a particularly tender moment between Celie and Shug, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
There is also humor. A trio of “Church Ladies” (Ladidi Garba, Debra Harvey, and Pam Drummer-Williams) form a comedic Greek Chorus of sorts. They sing in a heavy gospel style, and sometimes their lyrics are lost in the mix, but their intention is clear. They provide commentary on the action and comic relief stopping some scenes from venturing into the morose. Harpo too is used for the lighter side. He’s a strapping specimen, and yet his wife Sofia beats him, and he takes it and throws out offhand comments about his ineptitude.
Finally there is dance. Joyous dance. Jayne Zaban’s choreography is exciting, and the ensemble executes it to perfection. There are several standout numbers, but two are particularly striking. The first occurs in an early church sequence. The full ensemble is involved, and the color and movement are vibrant.
The most impressive dance is at the top of Act 2 in the African village. The villagers are dressed in blues and purples, and the celebratory dance is extremely acrobatic and very well synchronized. Featured dancers include Gary Stanford, Jr., Kevin Stanford, and Leylan Williams.
Ivy handles Celie with aplomb. Her voice meets the challenge of the difficult mix of gospel, jazz, and blues her character sings, and she brings real strength to the obstacles Celie must overcome. She has a strong stage rapport with all of the other principals, but especially with Troupe.
The most touching scenes are between Celie and Shug, and those are very genuine. Troupe has tremendous charisma and is also a strong singer. There’s a long build-up to Shug Avery’s arrival, but once she makes her entrance, the audience immediately understands her appeal.
At the helm for the last time at Hillbarn, Lee Foster directs this production in style. Her staging is interesting and utilizes the multiple levels of Kuo-Hao Lo’s set. The fixed set includes a multilevel wooden building stage right with a main door downstage right, a half-story high landing upstage right, and three upstairs windows along the face of the building through which Foster places cast members very naturally in several scenes. In one menacing scene, Jackson’s Mr.__ has a breakdown as he hears voices provided by the Church Ladies at each window and the Preacher on the landing singing through an echo effect, their voices haunting Mr.__.
Foster also makes good use of an elevated and functional tree house standing stage left. From the opening scene with young Celie (NuPhaeya Hassen) and young Nettie (Kiara Rose Johnson) playing and singing in the tree house, to later scenes with other children taking their places, the perch provides a convenient vantage point.
A gate along a slightly elevated path runs across the stage upstage center under a stretch of sky that features several of Don Coluzzi’s lighting effects. One memorable one includes a purple sky that matches Shug’s dress during a very poignant scene between her and Celie.
This is also the last Hillbarn production for musical director Greg Sudmeier. His full focus is on the cast’s vocal precision given he did not bring his usual ensemble of instrumentalists to this production. The show is relying on Right On Cue Services for the performance tracks. Although well-timed and very clean, canned instrumental music isn’t as exciting as hearing live performers.
While many of the vocal harmonies are lovely, one negative comes from a combination of the show’s dialect and musical style. In Act 1 when the bulk of the story is sung-through, several lyrics are unintelligible during some of the numbers. They are loud enough, but the diction just isn’t clear in some of the larger women’s ensemble pieces and also when the young Celie and young Nettie sing at the top of the show.
Fortunately, the loss of a few lyrics doesn’t detract significantly from the story. The context is clear, and the story comes through. While Act 1 breezes by in a few places, and some of the plot seems slightly rushed, Act 2 hits you between the eyes as it points out what is truly important in life in a more dramatic fashion.
Alan Chang’s sound design works well and is nicely balanced for the most part. The exception is that some far upstage voices are lost on occasion.
Dee Morrissey’s hair and wig design is very nicely done. With a 36 year span in the storyline, all of the characters age appropriately. Margaret Toomey’s costume design adds a great deal to the production as well fitting both the period and the locales. Her use of purple for emphasis is also interesting.
This is a long show that runs a bit over 3 hours, but it is well worth your time. The final resolution is satisfying, and it leaves you wanting to find that field of purple perfection out there.
What: The Color Purple
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
When: Continues through 1 June 2014.
See http://hillbarntheatre.org/the-color-purple/ for more information or to order tickets.
(Photo courtesy of Mark & Tracy Photography)