‘The Color Purple’ flashes by with verve at Paper Mill

By Liz Keill

MILLBURN, NJ – This Tony-award winning musical caught audiences up in its stunning story of African American life in the deep south over a 40 year period, from 1909 until 1949.

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Based in the novel by Alice Walker and a screen adaptation several years ago, the story centers on Celie (Adrianna Hicks), who had babies while still almost a child herself and was married off to Mister (Gavin Gregory) before she really knew what was going on. Her younger sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) disappears and Celie believes she has died. In addition, her two little children were taken from her. So she is left with Mister, who beats her and mistreats her.

Eventually she meets Shug (Carla R. Stewart) and she realizes what love really means. We also know about Sofia (Carrie Compere) who learns the hard way what it means for a black woman to talk back to a white woman in those times.

Through it all, the men hold their own, including Harpo (Jay Donnell) and Adam (Darnell Abraham.) Still, the play is mostly about the women and their survival during hard times. One of the most exhilarating numbers is “Miss Celie’s Pants,” which includes the line ‘who’s wearing the pants now?’ By this time, Celie has left her abusive husband and moved to Memphis with Shug and her husband. “African Homeland” is another winning number that starts off Act II. In fact, the second act brings it all together as we gradually realize the tensions and anguish that set the stage in Act I.

John Doyle directed and staged the musical, as he did in the London production. Music and lyrics are by Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with a book by Marsha Norman. There’s a lot to tell in this tale, and some of it is shrouded in mystery. There could be more quiet moments so we would have a sense of the turbulence of those times and what segregation meant in individual lives. But most of the musical is confined to a particular world in a particular span of time. Even the sprightly “Brown Betty” that features Erica Durham as Squeak, makes light of what must often have been a grim, difficult reality. Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward reflect the changing times and circumstances and a simple scenic design by John Doyle consists of stacks of chairs on a wall, perhaps reflecting the bare-bones existence of the period.

The music is sometimes too loud, which is often the case at Paper Mill productions, whether it’s the acoustics or the way microphones are placed on the bodies of the actors, at times resulting in shrill, almost screeching volume. It also makes if difficult to follow the plot, especially during Act I.

Still, it’s apparent that audiences are caught up in this high spirited production. Performances of “The Color Purple” continue at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, through Oct. 21. For tickets, call 973-376-4343 or visit papermill.org.