The newly renovated Paper Mill Playhouse kicks off its 80th year with a bang with the rousing The Color Purple: The Musical through October 21. The story is a tonic for our times. Strong women, helping each other through horrible abuse to ultimately find their own voice.
Director John Doyle, who won a Tony in 2016 for this reimagined interpretation of the show that originally ran on Broadway in 2006, concludes the troop’s national tour at the newly renovated Paper Mill Playhouse.
The set is sparse — planks, chairs and fabric — but it’s a perfect counterpoint to the booming energy the actors bring to the music and lyrics by written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The soundtrack mixes gospel, ragtime and the blues which the cast executes with a soulful verve.
Adrianna Hicks gives a powerful and transformative performance as Celie. At the start of The Color Purple, the joyful innocence of Celie’s play with her sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) gives way to a childhood destroyed by incest, abuse and the loss of her children. The enduring resignation of a survivor replaces Celie’s joy.
The men in Celia’s life are lustful, abusive and indifferent. Celie’s stepfather sires two children by her, only to give them away. He then sends Celie off to live in a loveless “marriage” with Mister, played by Gavin Gregory, who gives an intense, complex performance. Nettie escapes a similar fate by joining a missionary family headed to Africa, but is not able to tell Celie, who fears she is dead.
The love of two strong and larger-than-life women, Sophia and Shug Avery, transform a resigned Celie into a woman with purpose. Carrie Compere plays Sophia with a boldness, sensitivity and sensuality that is one of the highlights of the show. Harpo, Sophia’s husband, and one of the few likable male characters in the musical, is charmingly played by Jay Donnell. Sophia gives strength to Celie, who returns the favor later in the story.
Carla R. Stewart plays Shug Avery, Celie’s foil and lover who radiates confidence. Shug, a cabaret singer, knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to grab it as shown in the song “Push Da Button.” Celie brings out Shug’s sensitive side, as demonstrated in the tender duet “What About Love?”
The Spartan set is aptly filled by the characters’ energy, but there are two times Doyle uses colors to convey emotion. We see Nettie in Africa under flowing, whimsical banners of red, yellow, green and black. Later, a confident Celie runs a garment factory that manufactures boldly colored pants for women. As the story of Celie demonstrates, that metaphor works on several levels. Celie proclaims her place in the world by singing “I’m Here” and she becomes both transcendent and free.
The Color Purple, through October 21 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn. Tickets online at papermill.org or by phone at 973-376-4343.