The Color Purple displays broad emotional shades at Theatre Horizon in Norristown
The pre-show look of the stage for Theatre Horizon’s The Color Purple foreshadows the play the audience is about to see. The dirt-colored floor gives way to various steps and tiers; there are four to six tiers, depending on your angle. The lighting reflected on the screen at the rear is deep blue in the center, fading to purple at the flanks; or are the purple flanks fading to blue in the center? The Color Purple challenges the audience to follow characters as they traverse their own emotional tiers and evolutionary fades, each one striving for their own definition of peace.
The Color Purple, the 2005 musical, has a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. It is based on the Alice Walker novel, which also spawned a Steven Spielberg film in 1985. It draws us into the world of Celie, a 14-year-old African American girl in early-20th-century Georgia. Celie, played with depth and range by Jessica M. Johnson, is in labor with her second child (impregnated twice by her father) when her story begins. Her only “rock” is her ambitious sister, Nettie (Jessica Muse Money), and when local farmer and widower, Albert “Mister” Johnson (Tyson Jennette) visits their father shopping for a wife, he is convinced to take the “ugly” Celie over the “cute” Nettie. The sisters had vowed never to separate, but Celie goes with Mister to protect Nettie’s future and Nettie, who promises to write, disappears from Celie’s life.
Celie is not viewed as a human being by her new husband; she exists to rear his children, tend his farm and take his abuse, placing her barely above the station of “mule.” Young Celie, therefore, doesn’t see herself as a person, worthy of love. She shuffles about with a subservient slouch, asking no questions and offering no opposition. Over time, however, Celie encounters strong women, women who not only stand up to their men but reign over them, like her stepson’s fiancée Sofia (Donnie Hammond) or jazz singer Shug Avery (Ebony Pullam), who has a hold on several of the local men, but chiefly and most dramatically on Mister. Celie is in a constant state of learning and growth, and we watch her climb her tiers, and when she finally stands tall and proud, such as during her stellar performance of “I’m Here,” it’s a rewarding apex for everyone watching.
These stories and environs are reflected in the vibrant soundtrack, chiefly in styles of jazz and ragtime, performed rousingly by the entire cast. A trio of churchgoers clap and dance on and off the set like a gospel Greek chorus. If you go, do yourself a favor and peek behind you at the closed-circuit screen showing music director Amanda Morton tickling the ivories; her exuberance is infectious. Director Amina Robinson described an intimate relationship with The Color Purple in all its forms, and she honored the material with a deft hand, letting the performances drive the momentum. My only issue was that it wasn’t clear when significant time had passed. The story spans 30 years of Celie’s life, but there are rare and few indicators of such.
Even before it opened, Theatre Horizon’s The Color Purple was extended through December 23rd, marking the first-ever seven-week run for any show at this small Norristown space. The building is easily accessible from Septa and major highways, and there are some fantastic restaurants in walking distance of the theater. In other words, don’t let the distance hamper you from seeing this show. This production is high-quality and high-energy, especially when the entire 17-member cast is performing in unison. Don’t balk at the ticket prices; smaller spaces suffer from an “implied value” stigma, to wit: it’s not a big, huge space, therefore I’m not going to see a big, huge production, which makes it harder to justify the expenditure, but while the former is true, the latter is not. This show is worth your entertainment dollar, and the unanimous and spontaneous ovation at the show’s end is evidence that no one left that theater disappointed.
The Color Purple runs now through December 23 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown, PA. Tickets and info are available here.