There’s a reason why Toby’s Dinner Theater is packing them in for Color Purple—excellent casting, beautiful vocals, and spirited direction tell a poignant story of human fortitude and redemption.
The role of Celie in the movie version gave Whoopi Goldberg her first featured film role, and introduced Oprah Winfrey’s theatrical chops as Sofia. In Toby’s version, Dayna Quincy gives a spectacular performance as Celie, wraps her gorgeous vocals around notes reminiscent of Fantasia who toured the role, and Theresa Cunningham as Sofia is a powerhouse of a woman who could give Oprah a run for her Oscar nomination.
The ground-breaking novel by Alice Walker has been required reading for a generation, the movie filled in the messages, and the musical heightens the emotional element. Co-directors Toby Orenstein and long-time performer, now one of the Associate Artistic Directors, Lawrence B. Munsey dig to the depths of the personal struggles and shifting relationships among the characters and tell the story without yanking on the heartstrings, a feat because the story is heartstrings heaven.
Celie has lived a hellified life, being passed from one abusive situation to another. Since her prettier sister Nettie, winsomely played by Jessica Coleman, was unavailable to marry off, her father essentially sold her to Mister, or threw her in for free with the purchase of a cow. Her two children born under gossip-ripe conditions were snatched away like unwanted litter, and she worked like a mule while being constantly degraded as being poor, black and ugly.
In contrast, her larger than life friend Sofia grabs life with gusto, does what she wants and says it too, often to her detriment. Sofia’s crowd-pleasing response to an unacceptable situation, “Hell No,” resonates enough to sell t-shirts. When Mister brings his long-time love interest, Shug Avery, home for Celie to tend to, she finally learns what love feels like, and begins the long painful journey to self-acceptance and self-love.
Shayla Simmons as Shug can shimmy and shake with the best, and Mark Anthony Hall plays a mean Mister who slowly transitions into a decent human being when enough time passes, although until then, he’s so effective you want to pop him.
David Little brings a sweet spirit to Harpo—anybody caught between Mister as a father and love interest sometimes wife Sofia needs support and care. Their duet, “Any Little Thing” shows that even with bumps and bruises, love can still conquer all—and then some.
The small six-piece band under the direction of Christopher Youstra is generally snappy with the music, and the moveable feast converting into a multi-functional set design is always a marvel. In this case, scenic designer David A. Hopkins created realistic fences and shack entrances–even Harpo’s Juke Joint takes shape, along with the required upper perch for Celie and Nettie to do their hand-slapping routine as children in the opening number. Lighting designer Lynn Joslin also deserves an enthusiastic nod in creating the ominous dark red hues during Celie’s curse, quiet and calm blue and the ubiquitous color purple on cue.
Still, it’s costume designer Munsey again who steals the show for the authentic looking long dresses and church lady hats, as well as shifting to the scene from Africa, with gorgeous robes, feathered and corn-rowed towering head dresses, and body-painted leotards that would keep the gossipy church ladies’ tongues wagging. The direction is particularly effective here since Celie is reading the long awaited letters from Nettie and is imaginatively drawn into the village scene.
The Color Purple
Closes November 11, 2012
Toby’s Dinner Theatre – Columbia
5900 Symphony Woods Road
Columbia, MD 21044
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $49 – $54 includes dinner
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 800 888 6297
The Color Purple musical was heavily nominated for the 2006 Tony Awards and the production at Toby’s does the show justice. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel’s material is notoriously bleak, but the musical version explores the depths of the human spirit of survival without plunging us into the misery.
Toby’s Dinner Theater is known for its attention to theatrical excellence as reflected in bountiful Helen Hayes nominations and awards. Toby “gets” Color Purple and respects the tale beneath the words and the music. That’s what makes them special and assures a terrific if poignant good time.
The Color Purple; Book by Marsha Norman, Lyrics and music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
Based on the Novel by Alice Walker. Directed by Toby Orenstein & Lawrence B. Munsey, Featuring Dayna Quincy, Jessica Coleman, Melissa Victor, Crystal Freeman, Tierra Strickland, Kelli Blackwell, Devron Young, Tobias Young, Mark Anthony Hall, Olivia Ashley Reed, Sayne-Khayri Lewis Anwar Thomas and David Gregory. Ensemble – Antonio Beverly, Sayne-Khayri Lewis, Nurney Mason, Samantha McEwen, Olivia Ashley Reed, Patricia Targete.
Musical Director, Christopher Youstra,; Choreographer, Anwar Thomas; Scenic Design, David A. Hopkins; Costume Designer, Lawrence B. Munsey; Lighting Design, Lynn Joslin; Sound Design, Drew Dedrick. Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theater of Columbia. Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson