Among the many things Redhouse Arts Center audiences will like about the 2005 hit musical version of The Color Purple, composed by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, is that it hews more closely to Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel than did director Steven Spielberg’s much-admired but controversial 1985 movie. This starts with the epistolary structure, in which the much put-upon Celie (Joan Anderson) is always explaining what’s happening to her sister Nettie (Briana Maia) in Africa. Their reunion is the climax of the second act.
Secondly, in Marsha Norman’s adaptation, Celie, who is always told that she is “poor, black, ugly and a woman,” knows the first sensations of love with the sexy, alluring Shug Avery (Lindsey Warren), mistress of Celie’s brutish common-law husband Mister (Carl Clemons-Hopkins).
Outstanding in contrasting roles are Debra Evans as the bumptious but comically erotic Sophia, very tall Brandon Ellis as an African chief (one of four roles), and especially local favorite Stephfond Brunson as Mister’s son Harpo, aging from adolescence to his 60s.
Under director Stephen Svoboda, Redhouse productions are professional shows with plenty of community input. Only two members of the 35-person cast hold Equity cards, but music direction (Patrick Burns), costuming (Katharine Tarkulich), sets (Tim Brown), lighting (Chuan-Chi Chan) and sound (Tony Vadala) are all up to the highest standards. There are even two choreographers, Erin Lafferty and Katishma Grey, for production numbers that range from Southern juke joints to exotic Africa.
Yet whether The Color Purple is classed as professional or “community” for all its familiar faces, it is a landmark: There has never been such a Syracuse-based African-American show so engrossing, moving, vibrant and excellent.