There are so many good things in this ambitious production of The Color Purple at Karamu House that it almost seems churlish to point out a couple major problems. Trouble is, those problems affect the overall impact of the piece, and that’s most unfortunate.
This musical interpretation of the famous and heart-rending Alice Walker novel is expansive, covering four decades and the lives of black women who find challenges at every turn in their homes, in the community and in the South.
Many people are familiar with Celie, the much put-upon “ugly” woman who gradually emerges as a strong and defiant person capable of fending for herself. Then there’s her sister Nettie who goes off to Africa, Celie’s friend and blues singer Shug Avery, and Mister—Celie’s violent and mean husband who eventually turns over a new leaf.
There’s a lot of story here, and the good parts of this production, directed by Terrence Spivey, are really extraordinary.
Colleen Longshaw as Celie is tremendously affecting as she continually picks herself up and continues her journey. And she sings with deep passion even when the right notes tend to evade her.
She is matched in intensity by Michael May as Mister, throwing his weight around in terrifying ways. And May makes the transition of Mister, from brute to softie, almost believable.
Mikhaela LaShawn is perfect as boozy Shug, at first a stone cold bitch and then showing her more tender side. And standing out in a small role is Christine Johnson as Sophia, belting her songs and providing an imposing presence on stage.
Plus, the singing and dancing under the direction of musical director Ed Ridley and choreographer Angelique Lipford, is spirited and immensely moving.
Unfortunately, the play moves at glacial speed, with scenes dragging out way too long and scene changes taking so long one is tempted to curl up for a short nap. Perhaps this is improving as the play is performed, but the lethargic pace is almost torturous.
There are also moments when the singers are over-amplified, lending a screech to the songs that doesn’t help matters.
Still, this is a fantastic story with very capable performers throughout. If and when they goose it up a few notches, it will be a thorough delight.
The Color Purple
Through October 28 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th Street, 216-795-7070