"The Color Purple" offers powerful, but heartfelt experience

Aug 26, 2015

Corn Stock Theatre closes its summer season with the regional premiere of “The Color Purple.” It’s a musical adaptation of the best-selling novel. Stan Strickler has this review of a production at Corn Stock Theatre, for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League of Peoria.

Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.

The Color Purple did not just open on Friday night at Corn Stock Theatre; it exploded with great force and power with a wonderful opening gospel number before revealing its tender story of love, resilience, and redemption.  It alternates between rousing gospel songs, sweet love songs, and a beautiful song of hope and belief.

The story, which deals with modern more mature subject matter than older musicals, revolves around Celie and her relationships.  It begins with her as a pregnant fourteen-year-old girl living with her sister and her abusive stepfather.  Eventually she is forced to marry Mister, who beats her, and separates her from her sister.  Through the help of friends, notably Shug Avery, and her stepson’s wife, Celie finds freedom and self-respect.

Directors Molly Burroughs and Sharon Samuels Reed have assembled a remarkable cast who sing superbly and act with great conviction.  As Celie Gabriella Lott-Rogers delivers a Broadway-caliber performance that is by turns subservient, thoughtful, self-confident and forgiving.  A true highlight was the last song, “The Color Purple” performed with great hope and conviction.  It was truly moving. 

As Harpo, York Powers was tender and loving, forceful, and humorous.  Sam Hardimon as Mister gave a powerful performance in his role as the violent husband who finally learns that love is the real answer.    Renee Andrews is very good as Nettie who comes into her own as a missionary in Africa.  Jamika Russell does a fine job as Sophia and is by turns funny, strong willed, and forgiving.  Also giving stellar performances were Tagwayna Webster as Squeak and Ayana Pankey as the strong willed and independent Shug Avery. 

Sharon Reed is to be commended for her superb musical direction.  She also conducts the orchestra and generally finds the right balance between it and the singers on stage although there were a couple of times that the orchestra was a little too loud making it a little difficult to hear the lyrics of the song.  Taunya L. Jenkins choreographed the dances beautifully and powerful, particularly the African numbers which were exciting and beautiful. 

Set design by Julie Wasson and light design by Megan Larke define the space well and allow for swift set changes between scenes.  My biggest complaint with this show has to do with the musical itself.  Since the story began as a novel, it is sometimes difficult to translate the many scenes and subplots.  This show requires undivided attention since the plot moves along quickly, and if the audience is not paying attention, it may miss important plot information and some of the relationships portrayed.

My hat goes off to Corn Stock for a wonderful season and for giving us a regional community theater premier of a newer work that allowed many talented people -- who too often are ignored by the local theater community --  to perform in a heartfelt and emotional show that is moving and hopeful.