Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Theater review: The Color Purple at Denton Community Theatre lacks depth and direction
Couple that with technical issues and the musical becomes very confusing.
DENTON It seems impossible that it has been over seven years since The Color Purple burst onto the Broadway stage. The novel by Alice Walker and film by Steven Spielberg led the way in telling a story of love's redemption beyond hate and fear. The musical hit the New York City audiences by storm with its powerful message, exuberance and uplifting music.
For the 2006 Tony Awards, The Color Purple garnered 11 nominations, winning one for "Best Actress in a Musical." It received attention and nominations from Theatre World Awards (winning three), Outer Critics Circle Awards, Drama League Awards, Grammy Awards and, most importantly, the NAACP Theatre Awards where it took home awards for "Best Lead Female," "Best Supporting Male" and "Best Costumes."
But to understand the true story of The Color Purple, one has to go back to its source, Alice Walker's 1982 novel, which depicts female black life in the first half of the 20th century in the southern United States. The novel became instantly controversial, the target of censorship, and appeared on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009. Proudly coming in at No. 17 "because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence," The Color Purple addresses such issues as black women's low position in American social culture "at that time" (as if it's better now?). The book also revolves around racism, sexism, domestic violence and the reversal of gender roles amongst its characters.
Celie, a poor, uneducated, black girl living in the South is the story's narrator and protagonist. Sexually abused by her supposed father at home, she has two children by age 14 then is given to Mister, a farmer and landowner, to care for him and his four children. Celie's only sibling, her sister Nettie, is banished from both home and Mister's place and Celie begins a 40 plus-year journey into self-loathing, hatred, disbelief in God, and eventually to love, confidence, financial and spiritual freedom and redemption into her own self-worth.
I'm probably not too far off base to say that most know of The Color Purple through Spielberg's emotional, beautifully filmed but over-romanticized version of the novel. While his movie depicts the hard life and racism of the rural South, it "white-washes" over the deeper subtext Alice Walker intended to have shine in her novel. Given a second chance to bring the subtext into the light, I was excited to see if the musical version would bring her story to justice. Unfortunately, the musical, as written, leaves audiences with glorious songs but a weak storyline that too hurriedly skims through Celie's journey and the societal aspects Walker placed within the lines.
The musical's book writer, Marsha Norman, is one of my favorite playwrights, her first play being the award-winning Getting Out. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Night Mother in 1983, the same year Alice Walker won for The Color Purple. Marsha Norman knows how to write about strong women in conflict and seemed a perfect choice to put Walker and Celie's story onstage. She had long wanted to write a musical and finally got her chance with The Secret Garden that garnered much attention and won her the Tony and Drama Desk awards. In a scenario that can only be called serendipity, Norman was originally asked by Steven Spielberg to write the screenplay. When they talked and agreed they were not a good working match, one of the musical's eventual producers, Quincy Jones, took her to lunch and the collaboration began.
In a written interview, Norman discusses adapting a novel into a musical. "There's an old theatrical axiom, 'you can't cut up a sofa to make a chair.'" Continuing, she said one has to figure out how to make "it" into a new thing and to make certain that through the process and tinkering, the thing that is the heart of the story does not become lost. Norman said her job as the book writer was to answer what makes the story tick. "You cannot hide the lack of a beating heart in [a] musical. Once you have that [the heart], you can pour on the songs, the dancing and everything else."
As I sat in the audience, watching the second performance of Denton Community Theatre's production of The Color Purple, I kept wondering where the passion and emotion was in this deeply emotional, powerful story. I was saddened that it did not hold the same core feelings I had while reading the book or seeing the film. And I was also saddened that so much of it did not make sense or could be understood, even when I already knew the story.
Only afterward as I further researched the musical, Walker's novel again and other articles did it dawn on me that the musical, somewhat more than the production, was at fault. The musical's book too easily allowed the songs to take the place of and overwhelm the dialogue, the very thing that connects them, and therefore lost the essence of the novel, the heart.
Saddled with a book that ultimately does not serve the story, DCT's director of The Color Purple, Theresa Buntain, did her best with the written word but further hampered the production with the use of set changes for each and every scene, of which there are 21 in the book alone and more with separate songs within some of the scenes.
All those scene changes begin with the set design by Bill Kirkley. The poor, rural area of Georgia was well-depicted in the faded wood planks of the two houses, fences, walls and stores. An odd mass of vegetation was set upstage with a stile (steps to cross over a fence) for the two young sisters to stand on and play hand games. The problem with Kirkley's design was the need for each location to have a different set. Constant turning of the two rotating upstage platforms to reveal either a planked wall, interior of Mister's house or a shop became overly repetitive, held up the flow of the story and extended the musical to two hours, forty five minutes with a 20 minute intermission. Poorly dressed crew members continuously entered the stage, sometimes in the light and before a scene truly ended, distracting the audience and breaking the emotion of the moment. Shakespearian directors learned long ago that audiences would no longer tolerate separate sets for each of the myriad locations in his plays. Many of The Color Purple's scenes could easily be set downstage or to far stage right or left with no set pieces or revolving platforms, aiding in moving the story along.
The constant stop and go of scene changes also made the actors race through their already sparse dialogue, making the words incomprehensible more often than not. While the songs hold great significance to the storyline, the dialogue is the glue that connects the songs, the subtext within them. By not understanding most of the dialogue, the audience was at a complete loss as to what was happening -- a sentiment said several times around me and my two friends at intermission.
The lighting design by Elizabeth Lambert was extremely simplistic -- white general lighting for most scenes and color side lighting for Harpo's Juke Joint. The back cyc was lit in various solid colors, but I did not recognize them as being a sunrise, sunset or anything else that supported the scene. Downstage follow spots separated people in time and place; effective if used properly, but too often the visual was underutilized.
It is here I must add a deep disappointment in the staging of the two lead characters, sisters Celie and Nettie, played by Genine Ware and Amber Renae. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written mainly as a series of letters and diary entries. Celie writes to God and Nettie to Celie. After Celie finds Nettie's hidden letters, she writes to her. Several times in the musical, the two young women were blocked to stand down left and right stage, talking to each other through their letters. A spotlight illuminated Nettie in her beautiful white dress, speaking through time and space to her sister. Celie, however, was standing in darkness and neither held their letters, the very symbol of their only connection for almost 30 years. Not to have them both in separate lights, reading and clutching those precious letters, was a special theatrical moment lost.
Sound design by Cooper Mitchell was rather a mess. Volume levels were off, voices, especially Celie and Sofia's, came from only one side of the theater space, mics crackled on and off stage, I heard a couple of off-stage voices, and the car horn came from stage right when they all looked at it towards stage left. I'm not certain why he had the actors place their headset microphones in front of their faces rather than down to chin level or taped at the temple, but both Celie and Shug's expressions were hidden and any actor wearing those types of mics was distracting all the way to the back of the theater.
Several people are credited for costumes but it does not say "design" and by the style and period of most of them, I would imagine they were found, borrowed or brought in by the cast. The opening scenes began with appropriate period day dresses and men's work clothing, but as the years past in the musical, the costumes became more hit and miss, current in style with lots of nice Sunday church dresses, hats and suits; none the correct period of the scenes. The biggest, glaring foe pa was the church hats for the women around 1909 or so. No lady coming from the rural South and that time period could ever afford to wear a hat strewn with flowers and fluff. The simplest of straw hats with maybe a single flower or ornamentation was all any of them would ever wear. Women on the farm with low income only had one or two dresses, a pair of shoes and the simplest of undergarments.
As time wore on in the musical, styles developed and people gained some money, their clothing reflecting those changes. In that regard, the costumes and the hair and makeup for the production kept up well with the time change, aging characters quickly. Some of the grayed wigs and beards, however, needed styling and work to make them the least bit believable. Men's work clothing did not change all that much through the years, with overalls, work pants, long-sleeved shirts and suspenders being the norm. During the jazz/swing eras, loose-hanging men's suits were seen at Harpo's and at the end of the musical.
I could more easily ignore the inaccurate time period of the clothing than I could the clothing for the African villagers in two short scenes as Celie read about her sister's life there. I can only imagine it was more for modesty than anything else, but black tank tops and sport shorts with short skirt and matching head wrap for the women and a Hawaiian–style wrap cloth for the men simply did not read African tribe.
Teresa Andrion choreographed the African tribal dance and a few of the dancers shone in their exuberant movements and deep arm swings. The rest of the dancers followed hesitantly but it worked overall. Without photos of the company, I'm going to guess that the lead dancer was Kelcee Guyton, the production's Dance Captain. If so, she stood out for her talent and ability to make the others look good. Jive and pre-Swing dances during "Push the Button" made Harpo's Juke Joint come alive. The dance couple with man in red suspenders (you know who you are) were particularly good. Beyond that, the choreography was mostly in the hand-clapping and arm waving during gospel songs or the rhythmic motion of the men working Mister's fields in unison in "Big Dog."
The Color Purple is as close to an all-singing musical as one can get, its dialogue sparse between songs. There are 28 songs including two reprises in the musical, leaving little time to get much of a spoken word in edge-wise!
Composers/Lyricists Allee Willis, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray collaborated in writing the songs for The Color Purple. These three had more experience writing for themselves, for individual pop and R&B singers and for films and television (Willis won an Emmy for writing Friends' theme song, "I'll Be There for You"), then for musical theater. All three stated they did not want to solely rely on gospel or blues music as their guide but both seeped into the music anyway, with touches of old spirituals, "back porch foot stompin'," swing and jazz added as the years of the story go by. Some of the songs are short, only a verse or two, to support the scene.
My favorites included the sorrowful "What About Love?" the sassy "Push the Button," Celie's final, triumphant solo, "I'm Here," and Sofia's threat to both Celie and the world in "Hell No!"
Making these songs and the music of The Color Purple come vibrantly alive is the full orchestra accompanying the singers. Nineteen musicians, under the guidance of Conductor Dr. Arturo Ortega and seated in full view behind the back cyc, magnificently filled the stage and theater space with music. So seldom do non-Equity productions have the luxury of an orchestra of this size and it was a complete delight to hear them. The only problem, and this was the same one I had for another musical by DCT at the Campus Theatre, was that by placing the musicians at the back of the stage, they are on the same level as the singers and actors and often drown them out, especially while playing underneath dialogue. That further confused and lost the audience as to the storyline, a true shame.
As I read the playbill, most of the 35 performers, except for the lead actors, have limited acting experience, mainly showing talent through their singing ability. Many have sung solo, in bands, church choruses and in other musical productions. This is a highly sung musical so Musical Director Richard Buntain's casting choices became apparent. In directing the songs, however, there were too many times when the actor stood there with no emotional tie to the song or scene and simply waited to sing again. They left all characterization when they weren't singing and then started up again when it was their turn. This poor direction was across the board with everyone, leads and ensemble alike.
Within the large ensemble, some supporting singer/actors easily stood out. An audience favorite was the church ladies, Darlene, Doris and Jarene, as played by Victoria Bell, Chelsi Clark and La'Netia D. Taylor, respectively. Entering from the side as scenes changed, commenting on what was happening, this three-woman Greek chorus hilariously sang about the goings on or prophesized Celie's future in "Mysterious Ways," "Shug Avery Comin' to Town" and "All We Got to Say." It was fun to watch their visual changes as the years went by. The men's ensemble also had some moves and sang in perfect harmony as the Field Hands in "Big Dog."
Alice Walker wrote of the changes in gender roles and changes in the relationships between men and women in her novel. Southern society in the 19th and early 20th century was divided into wealthy and poor, white and black, male and female. In each division, one had the power while the other was relatively powerless. This created incredible tension at every level. The South's population was primarily rural. Families were large since a lot of work was required to keep the household running. Men did the farm work and held the family's finances. Women cared for the children, prepared the meals, cleaned, chopped wood and carried water. They often bore children every year, leaving them weak and vulnerable to illness. Women often died in childbirth and a man would marry twice or three times because he needed a woman to care for his children.
By the time that The Color Purple begins, two generations had barely passed since the end of the Civil War and slavery emancipation. Though not true of all families, many men had to remember how to reassert the authority they had lost over the family while women were forced to give up their say in family matters. Some women freed themselves of this oppression; others fell underneath its weight.
The two male lead characters, Mister and Harpo, are representations of the two conflicting male figures in Walker's story. Jeremy Davis plays Mister, who physically and verbally abuses women, especially Celie, which makes him feel powerful. Davis had the build and demeanor to frighten yet the ability to switch gears and become reduced to silliness when Mister finds out that independent and sexually-free blues singer, Shug Avery, is coming back to town. Davis played it to the hilt and it was funny to watch such a large man become giddy trying to decide what to wear. His songs were well sung though not clear or powerful enough in his solo, "Mister Song."
Harpo, on the other hand, loves the brass and frank-mouthed Sofia. He is criticized for being unmanly and not putting Sofia in her place. In a state of constant turmoil over his fate, he does irrational things to win her back and almost loses her in the process. Malcolm Payne, Jr. played Harpo's insecurities and frustration beautifully. He had nicely placed comedic timing and knew when the storyline called for seriousness. Payne had a magnificent voice and his duets with Jo'Von Wright as Sofia were harmoniously perfect.
The Color Purple is a woman's story, however, and the four remaining lead characters reveal their varied relationships and how women of this time period and place were slowly developing and changing socially. Celie views her fate as one who cooks, cleans and cares for others, mainly only living day to day. Sister Nettie has freed herself from that type of oppression, only to find it in another form half way around the world. Sofia will not be oppressed or subservient and her unwillingness to adjust to society's rules leads to her partial ruin. Shug Avery, by way of her profession, has freed herself from the traditional expectations of a woman. Some may judge, but no one expects anything from her. Her sexuality is free of expectations as well.
KayDee Carr plays Shug Avery and her physical appearance and vocal quality made her and easy casting choice. Carr has a lean body and look to make a flipper dress proud. Her easy laugh and stance nicely reiterated Shug's nonchalance toward life and love. Carr could shimmy and shake and belt out a song with the best of `em in "Push the Button," and then showed Shug's more caring nature in the musical's title song, "The Color Purple" and her duet with Celie in "What About Love."
Where Carr's characterization fell way short was in the direction of Shug by Buntain. I am a huge advocate of presenting a play, musical, opera, dance or other performing arts piece as it is written. When a theater, either the AD or the director, deletes or diminishes a character because of something they deem might be offensive to their patrons, it both disrespects the artist's work and prejudges the audience. If the organization feels that way then they should not produce the piece. In this case, the director or someone in the theater made a clear choice not to portray Shug Avery as bisexual. She clearly loves men but also falls for Celie and they do have a sexual relationship. The novel is very clear about it and the film alludes to the relationship without physically showing it.
In Denton Community Theatre's production, the passion between these two women was sorely missing. Shug barely hugged Celie, only touching her on her knee or half putting her arm around her shoulder. It was so frustrating to watch them skirt around each other, avoiding any physical or visual interaction, making Shug tell Celie, "I love you" and Celie saying to Mister, "We both love Shug" mean absolutely nothing. If the theater or director thought they could present Shug's relationship with Celie as one of a loving friendship only, they were mistaken. It is precisely this sexual relationship between the two women that allows Celie to discover love, realize her worth and propels her toward her eventual personal freedom.
Genine Ware too had the problem of not interacting with other characters. Celie is oppressed from her childhood to adulthood, and repressed with feelings of self-hate and doubt. But even through her hardships Celie writes to and questions God, she is a loving young woman, loves her sister and cares for others. None of this showed in Ware's face or body language. Whereas the character Celie finds herself and becomes a completely different person emotionally, physically and spiritually, Ware stayed the same. She looked to the floor most of the time. There was no arc, no subtext to her character.
Probably the most important scene between her and Mister is towards the end when he comes to her home and asks to finally marry her. Celie graciously declines then quietly says, "Wanna sit down?" This is their moment of reconciliation; in its simplicity they both realize the past has dissolved and their new future has emerged. As directed, it was a throwaway line and held none of the power it deserved. Genine Ware had a nice voice but she sang too meekly throughout, her mic was too low and the orchestra washed her out. I so wanted to see Celie's transformation as it is a powerful testimony and the emphasis of the story, but it was not witnessed in this production.
Jo'Von Wright made one heck of a Sofia. Loud-mouthed and ballsy, you could hear this actress all the way to the back of the theater. Wright's characterization and body type made her the perfect threat for Harpo, for his new girlfriend Squeak, and a threat to herself when she goes too far in refusing to "know her place." The audience kept giggling as Sofia finally came back to being herself during Easter dinner, hooting and hooing at Celie's new-found courage.
But it was Wright's singing voice that guaranteed we remember Sofia. "Hell No!" is Sofia's "theme" song and Wright delivered it with intensity and defiance. She was blocked too far upstage though and should have been given center stage with that number. Her staging of the scene when she punches out the mayor was too fast and also blocked way upstage, in dim light so you could not see what was actually happening or who played the mayor, though obviously not a person in the cast. That scene is pivotal to Sofia's characterization for the rest of the musical, and to have to become a toss away scene was detrimental to the understanding of Sofia's plight and Wright's performance.
Though the story is from the viewpoint of Celie, in this production the one who fully realized and portrayed Walker's vision of a truly freed black woman was Amber Renae in her performance of Nettie. Renae understood how young Nettie thought, how she had aspirations for herself already deeply planted in her soul. You felt her fear of Mister and her joy as her new life began. You could see the transformation as Renae grew into the older Nettie, the teacher and caregiver to her niece and nephew in Africa. Renae had a certain grace to her characterization that was breathtaking when she spoke to Celie through her letters and when she sang "Somebody Gonna Love You" to her sister. The visual of her standing quietly on the side as Celie's journey continued was simple and perfect. For me, Amber Renae was the essence of The Color Purple and symbolized Walker's true intent.
Denton Community Theatre's The Color Purple has flaws, ones that could be fixed with an understanding of the subtext of the storyline and a better eye to details. However, the music for this musical is poignant, fun, sometimes hilarious and thoroughly uplifting. The singers as a whole are talented and their voices fill the theatre in song and joyful noise. If you love the novel and/or the film, are a lover of gospel, blues, jazz and those good `ol spirituals, then this musical will fill your heart and soul. The Color Purple has a powerful message, and for that reason alone, is worth seeing. This is a fair production made better by the talented women and men onstage who raise their voices in song simply for the love of singing.
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