Inspiring musical based on Alice Walker’s famous novel

photo by Ian Jackson

review by Erica Gallup

Creators: Marsha Norman, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, from the Alice Walker novel
Director: Kimberley Rampersad
Starring: Ryan Allen, Andrew Broderick, Karen Burthwright, Janelle Cooper, Allison Edwards-Crewe, and Tara Jackson

The Citadel
until October 13

The Color Purple is an extraordinary tale detailing Celie’s life, and her triumph over the oppression she faced every day. It is set in the early 1900’s; Celie is an uneducated, African American woman who suffers unthinkable abuse from the men in her life.

After getting separated from the only person who has ever loved her – her sister, Nettie – Celie continues her fight to survive, writing letters to God and Nettie about the important moments over the years, until she is finally reunited with her sister once again. We first heard her story from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker, and audiences now have the option to see her life play out on the big screen, in the celebrated 1982 movie, or on th musical stage. Right now, at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton until October 13, you can see brilliant Canadian actors bring her story to life through the musical, with book by Marsha Norman, and music and lyrics by Brenda Russel, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

The description on the Citadel website promises a “joyous mix of jazz, ragtime, rhythm and blues, and gospel”, and the ensemble and orchestra conducted by Floydd Ricketts delivers just that. The music was seamlessly integrated into each scene which swelled and diminished with the action on stage. And some of the most powerful moments, such as when Celie finally stood up to Mister, were sung partly a capella, sending shivers through the audience.

None of this could have been done without the strong voice of Tara Jackson, who embodied Celie. Jackson has a spectacular voice, enabling her to reach the low notes and belt out the high ones. It truly was remarkable how she was able to captivate an entire audience with just her voice during her lengthy solo “I’m Here”, with Jackson on stage by herself, with nothing happening around her.

But it wasn’t just her voice that drew the audience to her. When I said Jackson embodied Celie for this musical, I really meant it. Her mannerisms throughout very much reflected Celie’s inner beliefs. As the audience we could see her low self confidence (shoulders hunched, eyes downcast, head always ducked) at the beginning, and we all got to watch her slowly but surely come out of herself as she gained the realization that she mattered in this world.

Tara Jackson as Celie
photo by Ian Jackson

Jackson’s performance was only made better by the rest of the cast and crew’s work all around her. The simplistic set allowed for easy transitions between scenes, eliminating the need for a full black-out or curtain draw which kept the action flowing – something I’ve never seen before in the other theatre productions I’ve attended.

Allison Edwards-Crewe as Nettie, and Karen Burthwright as Shug, as well as the rest of the main cast, Ryan Allen (Mister), Jenelle Cooper (Sofia), and Andrew Broderick (Harpo), all had a great cohesiveness that made every minute of the story believable so that we could go on their journey with them.

Jackson and Burthwright had apparent chemistry on stage and were not afraid to get into the more intimate moments, while Cooper was as brash and confident as she should have been up until her scene in the jail cell, which, for anyone in the audience, was a heartbreaking scene to witness. Cooper did not hold back. She put all of herself into Sophia’s breakdown and completely sobbed on stage to the point that it was difficult to watch. I was definitely struggling to keep my tears at bay. That scene hardly had any music as well, so her cries really cut the air and echoed in your ears.

Karen Burthwright as Slug
Karen Burthwright as Slug
photo by Ian Jackson

Another unforgettable moment was when Celie and Nettie were reunited at the end. Edwards-Crewe came on stage out of Jackson’s sight, and sang a few lines a capella from the musical’s starting number “Huckleberry Pie” (a hand clapping game that the sisters played when they were young) which immediately evoked a sense of nostalgia. The moment Celie realized her sister was there, she collapsed to the floor, crying out. It was a tremendously realistic reaction. The way those two embraced each other had me thinking of my sister, and it did not fail to generate those emotions in me as I watched them cry together on stage.

My only critique comes from the adaptation of the novel, no fault of the cast and crew. For most of her life, Celie is writing letters to God. In the musical, it is clear that God is a part of her life – the musical begins with a church service. However, I felt the name could have been mentioned more often in the beginning so that when Celie curses God later on, the impact of what that means for her to get to that point would be stronger.

The music was phenomenal, but there were times when it was difficult to understand everything being said because characters would sing over one another. This possibly kept the audience from fully picking up on the nuances that were so carefully layered in the songs, and therefore inhibiting them from realizing the extent that Celie was abused. Another issue I had with the music was that some lines were presented in an amusing light, even though they were not funny at all.

“Who da daddy?’ line got a laugh throughout the audience, even though the lines just prior state that she’s “Already ruined two times! She only fourteen years old!” It lacked the horror that this was not her first but her second pregnancy at that young age and that the “daddy” is her father. It raised the question for me as to whether or not a more serious tone should have been taken at the start of the musical.

photo by Ian Jackson

That being said, I have much praise for the adaptation as well. I think it honours the novel by using many exact quotes in both the dialogue and the song lyrics. All of the most important scenes were included and interpreted well, and the cuts that were made were fitting to keep the musical to a reasonable length. Specifically, one of the best moments to come out of this musical was Celie’s solo song “I’m Here”. It perfectly encapsulated Celie’s growth from believing she was just an invaluable being to her new-found confidence that she deserved to live a life on this earth and was capable of doing so.

The song is her official statement that she has finally triumphed over the oppression that she faced. It is an inspiring story that I’m not soon to forget, but regardless, before the musical leaves the Citadel Theatre on October 13, I hope to view this spectacle one more time.

Tickets: 780-425-1820,