‘Color Purple’ is carried by powerful voices at the Signature Theater
Based on the Pulitzer-winning epistolary novel by Alice Walker, Celie’s Dickensian journey of suffering and redemption is brought to life by an exuberant bluesy score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The 2005 musical benefits on this occasion from a sober and intelligent staging by director Timothy Douglas, on the unitary set of weather-beaten shutters by Tony Cisek which open to reveal the fate of the lost sister of Celie, Nettie (a Kaiyla Gross beaming with buoyancy).
It’s an engaging musical, but not for the ages. Signature’s entry reliably delivers the kind of polished, tempo-friendly numbers that get the pulse racing. But Marsha Norman’s exposition-laden book, seeking to play hopscotch among so many events and episodes of the narrative, ends up feeling insubstantial: it jumps with the gloss of an opera libretto. Particularly hard to swallow is the seemingly overnight transformation of musical heavyweight, Mister – sung wonderfully by Torrey Linder – from abusive monster to reformed angel.
If you can come to terms with the shorthand of the storytelling, “The Color Purple” will be an enjoyable evening. Payton, one of Washington’s musical theater luminaries, adds Celie to the pantheon of impassioned characters she’s played, including the embittered housekeeper in a wonderful “Caroline, or Change,” at the Round House Theater and the restaurateur hard-pressed in the recent flawed musical “Grace,” at Ford’s Theatre.
Here, Payton’s genuine reserve — if she’s a diva, she humbly is one — serves her well. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast, the actress seems to absorb the insults and deprivations Mister inflicts on her as if they were Celie’s pitiful due. The ignition of his libido, triggered by his meeting with juke-joint singer Shug Avery (a seductive Danielle J. Summons), frees Payton’s character: the shoulders relax, the mask of servile pain falls. Celie’s rise to true self-confidence reaches its apotheosis in her second-act tune, “I’m Here,” performed by Payton in his surefire belt.
Douglas, aided by musical director Mark G. Meadows, eight-member band and choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi, coaxes an engaging comedic performance from Solomon Parker III, as Mister’s compassionate son, Harpo, who marries the other character of the story, Sophia. . It was the supporting role that Oprah Winfrey made famous in the original 1985 film version directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie. Frenchie Davis is the Signature Sofia, and she rises delightfully to the fiery task, lending rousing liveliness to Sofia’s provocative proto-feminist anthem “Hell No!”
Costume designer Kara Harmon drapes the characters in eye-catching colors and silhouettes, and Jalisa Williams, Gabrielle Rice and Nia Savoy-Dock provide particular gossip-to-town fun. (Think of the “Pick-a-little-talk-a-little” ladies from “The Music Man” transplanted to the Deep South.)
A soft stage effect embroiders the last moments of the evening, while Celie’s happiness reaches its full bloom. Through the phases of Payton’s compelling performance, you may find that it’s your own empathy that blossoms.
The purple color, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Book by Marsha Norman. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Musical direction, Mark G. Meadows; decor, Tony Cisek; choreography, Dane Figueroa Edidi; costumes, Kara Harmon; lighting, Peter Maradudin; sound, Ryan Hickey. With Keenan McCarter, Stephawn P. Stephens, Temidayo Amay. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through October 9 at the Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.