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The Color Purple
Based upon the Novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee WIllis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 4, 2022

Tracee Beazer, Anastacia McCleskey
Photo by Julie A. Merkle
The Muny

The Muny is continuing it’s excellent 2022 season with a remarkable Muny debut production of The Color Purple. The musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated movie, is a sweeping, intensely emotional tale that features memorable characters and a strong musical score. At the Muny, with a top-notch cast led by a stunning leading performance, as well as stellar direction and production values, this show makes a lasting impression. 

The story, set in Georgia in the early-to-mid 20th Century, centers around Celie (Anastacia McCleskey), a young woman who is brought up by an abusive father, giving birth to two children as a a teenager and being forced to give them up. She then is essentially given by her father to Mister (Evan Tyrone Martin), a bitter widower who beats her, calls her ugly, and makes no secret of the fact that he would have preferred her sister, Nettie (Nasia Thomas), who is chased away by Mister after refusing his advances. Separated from the only person she knows who truly loves her, Celie lives a difficult life driven by fear; doing whatever Mister wants and enduring his wrath, until a series of influential people come into Celie’s life and encourage her to stand up for herself and discover the beauty she hasn’t been able to see. These people include the outspoken, strong-willed Sofia (Nicola Michelle Haskins), who marries Mister’s son Harpo (Gilbert Domally); and popular singer Shug Avery (Tracee Beazer), who has her own complicated history with Mister. Shug and Celie soon form a strong connection, and Celie also receives news that gives her hope of seeing her sister again. Nothing is simple or easy, as complications arise, people come in and out of Celie’s life, couples get together, break up, and sometimes reconcile, and Celie learns how to see and assert her own worth and value life beyond what has been dictated to her from childhood. 

This is a rich portrait of complex, well-drawn characters, and also of life situations affected by segregation and racist systems in the South in the first part of the 20th Century, as well as of the effects of authoritarianism and sexism. It’s a poignant, often intensely emotional story that requires a strong, talented cast, which this production clearly provides. Celie is a challenging character to play, requiring a strong sense of presence, a clear portrayal of the character’s vulnerability and inner strength, as well as a top-notch singing voice. At the Muny, McCleskey shines, displaying all those essential qualities and commanding the stage whenever she is on. She also has great chemistry with her equally strong co-stars, including the terrific Beazer as the worldly, outgoing Shug, Haskins in a memorable turn as the bold Sofia, and Thomas as the loyal, determined Nettie. Other standouts include Martin, ably portraying the complicated and contrasting aspects of Mister’s character; Domally, excellent as Harpo; and Erica Durham in a fun comic performance as aspiring singer and Harpo’s sometime-girlfriend Squeak. The standouts are supported by a stellar ensemble, as well, with excellent vocals and energetic movement to Breon Arzell’s dynamic choreography.  There’s also a great Muny orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The production values here are, as usual for the Muny, excellent, and the overall design is in different ways both minimalist and expansive.  Arnel Sancianco’s unit set is fairly minimal, although it covers the huge Muny stage well, and serves as an ideal setting for the story, as Heather Gilbert’s detailed lighting design and Paul Deziel’s stunning video designs add atmosphere, texture, and specificity. There are also striking costumes by Samantha C. Jones that fit the characters well, adding to the vibrancy and emotion as the story unfolds. 

 Even if you haven’t seen The Color Purple before, or experienced this story in its other forms, this production is an ideal introduction to this sweeping, intense, and ultimately hopeful story. It’s a memorable exploration of character, family, and community, at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, centering around a tour-de-force central performance. It’s a modern classic story and musical, given a remarkable staging at the Muny.

Nicole Michelle Haskins, Gilbert Domally, Erica Durham and Cast of The Color Purple
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting The Color Purple in Forest Park until August 9, 2022

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The Bridges of Madison County
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Based the Novel by Robert James Waller
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher, Direction Recreated by Tyne Rafaeli
The Fox Theatre
April 5, 2016

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The Bridges of Madison County was one of those books that everyone seemed to be reading in the early 1990’s. It has since become a well-known film, and now it’s a musical, featuring a score by one of the most celebrated modern composers, Jason Robert Brown. And the score is gorgeous, as are the production values. Unfortunately, despite a good cast, the story isn’t quite as gorgeous.

Although this was a best-selling book and a popular movie, I haven’t read the book and this version is the first adaptation I’ve seen. It tells the story of a lonely Italian woman, Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) who married an American soldier after World War II and moved with him to his farm in Iowa. After years of living with Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) and raising their now-teenage children Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (John Campione), Francesca is bored with farm life and misses Italy. When Bud and the kids take a trip to a state fair to show off Carolyn’s prize steer, Francesca stays home, where she soon meets traveling photographer Robert Kincaid (Andrew Samonsky), who has been sent by National Geographic  to take pictures of the area’s famous covered bridges. He stops at Francesca’s to ask for directions to the last bridge, and the two are soon intrigued by one another, as Robert has recently traveled to Francesca’s hometown of Naples and his more worldly, less conventional outlook on life intrigues her. They begin an affair, despite the frequent calls from Bud and Francesca’s neighbor and friend Marge (Mary Callanan) to check up on her.

This affair is apparently supposed to be life-changing for both Francesca and Robert, but the way it’s presented in this musical, I don’t really buy it. Everything moves too quickly and isn’t given the proper resonance. I keep finding myself sympathizing with the nice-but-boring Bud, and with his and Francesca’s kids, who have no clue what’s going on back home while they have their own “adventures” at the fair that don’t have much bearing on the rest of the story. The music is gorgeous, representing a variety of styles from a more classical sound to country and folk, and there are some stand-out songs, some with clever settings like Marge standing in for a radio singer singing “Get Closer” as Robert and Francesca dance. There’s also the haunting “Who You Are and Who We Want to Be” and Robert’s memorable “It All Fades Away”, but despite the beautiful music, the story around the songs reads as kind of shallow, with the connection between Francesca and Robert seeming little more than superficial, and the story’s continuation after the key events making the supposedly torrid affair seem kind of pointless.

The show looks great, as well. With a positively stunning set design by Michael Yeargan, adapted for the tour by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and beautifully realized lighting by Donald Holder and Michael Jones, the atmosphere of the sweeping farmlands of Iowa is well-embodied. There’s also excellent, well-suited costume design by Catherine Zuber that captures the style of the time period.

The cast for this show is also excellent, led by a top-notch performance by Stanley as the disillusioned Francesca. Her presence and strong voice help to make her character relatable despite the lack of chemistry with Samonsky’s nice-looking but somewhat bland Robert. The real stand-outs in this cast are the supporting performers, especially Callanan as the nosy but supportive neighbor Marge, and David Hess as her affable, loving husband Charlie. Houlahan and Campione are also excellent as Francesca’s children, the nervous but determined Carolyn and the initially rebellious but well-meaning Michael. Titmas is also fine in the somewhat flatly written role of Bud, and there’s a strong ensemble that fills out the cast, representing townspeople and various people from Francesca’s and Robert’s personal history.

The Bridges of Madison County is  a good-looking, great sounding show, but I wish it was more than that. It’s set up as a great love story but it doesn’t come across that way, especially with the lack of chemistry between the leads and the sense that most of the subplots are merely window-dressing for the unconvincing main event. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if the story is better told in novel form, but here it’s all kind of thin. Still, it’s Jason Robert Brown, so the music is wonderful, and the songs are well-sung.  There’s enough here for a reasonably interesting story, but I wish there had been more of a point to it all.

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Fox Theatre until April 17, 2016.

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