Monday, September 2, 2013

Preach the Gospel: The Mercury Theater's "The Color Purple" is a triumph!

Cross-posted from

You know you are in for some truly great singing when a show begins with a featured soloist who proceeds to knock it out of the park.

That’s just what happens with Mercury’s intimate and emotional production of “The Color Purple: The Musical.” Donica Lynn, last seen in Mercury’s production of “Barnum,” approaches both the Opening Act 1 and “Mysterious Ways” with all the passion and fire of a Southern Baptist revival. 

You just might find yourself raising your hand to God and shouting a few well-deserved “amens.”

Fortunately, the praise is not merely reserved for Ms. Lynn, but the rest of the 16-member cast and director L. Walter Stearns. Though the Mercury Theater may lack fly space or an orchestra pit, one still has the sense that this is a big show. In fact, it is as good as either the original Broadway production or the tour that came through here several years ago. The intimacy of the space (the Mercury isn’t much bigger than your average summer revival tent) seems to well-serve the story.  

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, the musical follows the trials and ultimate tribulations of Celia (Trisha Jeffrey). She is 14 when we first meet her, pregnant with her step-father’s second child. She is soon separated from her younger sister Nettie (Crystal Corrine Wood) when Celia is married off to the cruel and abusive Mister (Keithon Gipson). 
Jasondra Johnson (center) is perfect as Sofia.
With Evan Tyrone Martin as Harpo (right) and Keithon Gipson as Mister.
Jasondra Johnson’s Sofia is big, loud and proud. Married to Celie’s stepson Harpo (Evan Tyrone Martin), her unwillingness to let any man beat her down in the anthem “Hell No,” is one of the show’s highlights. It’s easy to see how the character might come to represent a beacon of freedom for Celie.
She's the king of the world!
Trisha Jeffrey (Celie) and Adrienne Walker (Shug)
As Shug Avry, the sultry jazz singer and one-time lover of Celie, Adrienne Walker sizzles in Shug’s show-stopper “Push Da Button.” She and Ms. Jeffrey also harmonize sweetly in “What About Love.” Ms. Walker plays up more of the comedy than the sensuality, however. In a musical that has already been accused of glossing over the lesbianism inherent in the original source material, it is perhaps a telling choice that Mr. Stearns’ production is geared more towards those in the pews.

The fabulous Church Ladies (Lto R): Sydney Charles (Darlene),
Carrie Louise Abernath (Doris) and Brittany L. Bradshaw (Jarene)

And speaking of church, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the terrific, scene-stealing, comedic work of Carrie Louise Abernathy, Brittany L. Bradshaw and Sydney Charles. As a trio of busy-body, gossiping church ladies, Ms. Abernathy, Bradshaw and Charles mine their moments on stage for every laugh.

There are things even the finest production cannot seemingly overcome, however. A second act dream sequence “Africa” still sucks the life out of the show. Also, age mellows many things, but in its need to bring things to a satisfying musical conclusion, the show’s book resolves any lingering resentment Celie might have a little too quickly.

Still, as presented at the Mercury Theater, “The Color Purple” is a passionate and heartfelt production of one African-American woman’s ultimate triumph of self-discovery despite the odds stacked against her in a pre-Civil Rights era south.  

“The Color Purple” runs through Oct. 27 at the Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport. Tickets, $22-$59. Call 773.325.1700.

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