Every facet of this extraordinarily powerful musical, (book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray), is artistically magnificent, from its fantastic 22-member cast, to Karen Perlow and Eric Fox’s brilliant-hued lighting and Jenna McFarland Lord’s masterful, versatile set, with its centrally-located, gnarled tree, extending, symbolic branches and background ramp. Music Director Nicholas James Connell and Co. provide marvelous accompaniment in all ensemble, duet and solo numbers, ranging from blues, gospel, jazz and more; and Elisabetta Polito’s costumes, from African attire to homespun, virginal, tawdry, church-going garb, are fabulous.
The play, which spans four decades, from 1909 to 1949. opens with a rousing, upbeat ensemble number, “Mysterious Ways”.
Although main character Celie is supposed to be homely, Roxbury’s rhythm and blues recording artist-actress Lovely Hoffman lives up to her name. Her portrayal of the abused, downtrodden, long-suffering African-American woman with a beautiful, self-sacrificing soul and inner glow, is gut-wrenching.
Celie is repeatedly abused, forced to do hard household chores and raped by her heartless stepfather, (Cliff Odle). When she’s very pregnant at 14 and delivers her baby son, her stepfather gives that baby away, like he did Celie’s baby daughter, who was born earlier. Wistfully, Celie sings,“Somebody Gonna Love You”.
Celie’s only salvation against her stepfather’s cruelty is her pretty, kind sister, Nettie, (Aubin Wise). As children, they steal moments to play with girlish glee, in song, “Huckleberry Pie”. When Mister, a heartless, carousing widower named Albert, comes to Celie’s house, hoping to marry Nettie, their stepfather balks at Mister’s proposal and thrusts Celie on him instead. Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Mister is the epitome of villainy and lust. Shortly afterward, when Nettie visits Celie at Mister’s house, he viciously attacks Nettie, who repels his advances and runs away, never to return.
Celie’s spirit is increasingly crushed as Mister forbids her to go to the mailbox, where potential letters from Nettie may be. Submissive Celie is a startling foil to her stepson-in-law Harpo’s (finely portrayed by Jared Dixon), independent, mouthy girlfriend, Sofia, whom Valerie Houston portrays with bluster. Sofia belts out her defiant “Hell No!” to submissive treatment,rattling the theater’s rafters.
Celie’s world changes when Mister’s sexy, traveling singer-mistress, Shug Avery, (dynamic Crystin Gilmore) comes to town, but is severely ill. When Mister insists Celie nurse Shug back to health, the unlikely female duo form a loving relationship. Shug tenderly tells Celie she’s “Too Beautiful for Words”. Shug also reveals a wonderful secret that restores Celie’s faith, empowering her. Other surprises, both painful and joyous, surface throughout the second act.
Although Sofia’s road to independence hits a terrible bump - the sole allusion to white cruelty against African-Americans - Celie’s eventual triumph, after years of oppression, and hopelessness, is glorious, in “I’m Here”. The ending is inspirational, with Mister’s change of heart and redemption, and this spectacular cast’s rousing reprise of theme song, “The Color Purple”.
BOX INFO:Two-act musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment film, appearing through Feb. 8, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Virginia Wimberly Theatre, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Contains adult themes and brief nudity. Performances:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; also Feb. 5 ,at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; seniors $5 off; age 25-under, $25; student rush, $15 with valid college ID, two hours before curtain, if available. Call 617-933-8600, visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com or www.BostontheatreScene.com.