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Parker Smith review: The softer side of The Color Purple

If you’ve read Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” or watched Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film, you might be put off by the idea of the musical.
But with a huge cast, numerous musical numbers and humor, “The Color Purple: The Musical about Love” takes a lighter hand with the story of physical and sexual abuse in 1920s Georgia.
How to make it lighter? Take the emphasis away from the beatings and other abuses and focus instead on the good people who eventually teach the main character, Celie, to love herself.
Petite Tameka Massey Brown, who’s actually quite pretty, plays the “ugly” and unloved Celie with the right air of fragility and helplessness. The opening night audience roared when she finally stood up straight and let her cruel husband, Mister, have it.
Tyler Smith, who also starred in “Dreamgirls” is a threatening and angry Mister, who later realizes he has been an awful man and makes amends in the best way he can.
Other standouts are the talented Alexis Greer as the no-nonsense Sofia, Shar Martin as Shug, the woman who teaches Celie to love, and Nettie, played by the young Hannah-Kathryn Wall, who embodies Celie’s sister, with her huge heart and strength.
Also outstanding are Wall’s mother, Natasha Tyson Wall, and her companion church ladies, Melissa Robinson and Dana Monroe. They act as the Greek Chorus, making commentary, warning about what’s going to happen, and singing many numbers.
Justin Davis plays Mister’s oldest son, Harpo, cowed into behaving by the physically and mentally stronger Sofia, who loves her man.
These are the people you will see most often on the stage. The cast includes a couple dozen other performers who can dance and sing remarkably well.
Among them is Leroy F. Bennett, who plays Mister’s father. Bennett is a guest at the homeless shelter and has written a play that will be performed in November at J.C. Price Legion Post. Four other guests are also part of the cast and crew.
Some of the prettiest numbers are ballads for Celie, including “Our Prayer,” which she sings with sister Nettie and others. “African Homeland” includes a moving native dance as Nettie, Celie and the ensemble sing. Celie and the vocally charming Shug sing the sweet “What About Love?” as the first act draws to a close.
Numbers sure to bring down the house are “Hell No!” with Sofia laying down the law and Shug’s sultry “Push Da Button.” But “Any Little Thing,” featuring Sofia and Harpo was quite hot, as well.
Most of the story is in song, so pay attention. The orchestra is vigorous and the music driving. All the players are miked, but some do have stronger voices than others. The dancing shows off talents of such Piedmont Players Theatre veterans as twins John and James Woodson, along with many other cast members, and when everyone sings together, it raises the rafters.
There is mature content in the musical, and some four-letter words, well-placed. Older children will understand what’s going on.
Adrian Smith conducts the multi-piece orchestra, which is a strong presence.
Co-director Reid Leonard also designed the versatile turntable set which evokes another place and time. He and co-director Tod A. Kubo, who is also the choreographer, had quite a lot on their hands when they put this show together. That the cast and orchestra move and work together is a testament not just to the talent, but the directors’ skills.
It seems strange to say it, but “The Color Purple” turns out to be full of hope. It’s a good message to take home.
“The Color Purple,” underwritten by Cloninger Ford Toyota Scion, continues tonight and Saturday and Oct. 31-Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee this Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
For tickets call 704-633-5471 or go to www.piedmontplayers.com.

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