The Color Purple
Celebration Theatre | 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. | Through May 26 | Tickets $34 | celebrationtheatre.com
When I first heard that Celebration Theatre was presenting “the L.A. intimate theater premiere” of the 2005 Broadway musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s beloved novel, I couldn’t imagine how the sprawling spectacle that I saw at the Ahmanson in 2007 could be reimagined for the company’s cramped, three-quarter space. Meanwhile, director Michael Matthews has not only found a way to squeeze the bloated show into the intimate setting, but with this reduced staging he has actually extracted far greater clarity and humanity than the massive national tour could muster.
With an exposition-heavy book by Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘Night Mother) and an appealing score by pop and R&B composers Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis, the mega-musical charts the journey of Celie (Cesili Williams), a plain young black woman who rises above unimaginable abuse, degradation and loss to claim her right to happiness and self-respect over a 40-year journey in the American South in the first half of the 20th century.
The 17-member cast is bursting with talent, with Williams leading the way with her endearing humility, infectious smile and divine singing voice. La Toya London is terrific as the seductive cabaret vamp Shug Avery, a former lover to Celie’s monstrous husband Mister (the dynamically devilish Michael A. Shepperd) and on-again, off-again lover to Celie. Their same-sex attraction, glossed over in the national touring production, is explored here with rich and rewarding nuance. Terrance Spencer gives Mister’s son Harpo a sexy sense of goodness, and his wife, Sophia (Oprah in the film), is a hilarious highlight in the hands of Constance Jewell Lopez.
The fantastic ensemble members nail Janet Roston’s sensual, percussive choreography as easily as they hit the score’s stunning harmonies out of the park. The tiniest character is given dignity and dimension here.
Matthews’ imaginative staging, always in service to the story, miraculously manages to use the theatre’s intimacy to abate the show’s weaknesses. For example, an Africa sequence that fills in the blanks about the journey of Celie’s long-lost sister Nettie (the vibrant Kelly M. Jenrette) feels so much more connected to the story here than the mini-Lion King extravaganza of the Broadway version.
Musical director Gregory Nabours deserves credit for wringing so much out of the small but sensational band hidden in an upstage shed. And the production values—including Stephen Gifford’s versatile set, Cricket S. Myers’ sound, Naila Aladdin Sanders’ detailed costumes and Tim Swiss’ lights—are all top shelf.
Following a string of successful shows, this engaging, gorgeously appointed and flawlessly performed Color Purple puts the LGBT-focused Celebration among our most reliably outstanding local companies. —Christopher Cappiello
Waiting For Godot
Mark Taper Forum | 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. | Through April 22 | Tickets $20-54 | centertheatregroup.org
The Center Theatre Group has given Southland theatergoers a once-in-a-lifetime gift with Michael Arabian’s exquisitely faithful staging of Samuel Beckett’s mid-20th century masterpiece featuring Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, two gifted actors who have spent considerable portions of their long and rich careers wrestling with the Nobel Prize-winning Irish writer’s provocative and gloriously enigmatic existential explorations.
The image of Waiting for Godot’s two tramps—Vladimir (McGovern) and Estragon (Mandell)—passing the time on a barren landscape waiting day after day for the arrival of the mysterious, titular savior is as iconic as any in theater history. However, shortly after the lights come up on John Ioacovelli’s striking rocky heath of a set, Mandell and McGovern set us at ease with a twinklingly playful sparring that lets us know that fidelity to Beckett’s script and uncommonly specific stage directions will not give way to stiff reverence. In fact, we are in the hands of masters.
I saw McGovern’s wonderful Vladimir in 1996 when Dublin’s Gate Theatre presented all of Beckett’s plays during the inaugural Lincoln Center Festival. His gravelly baritone has deepened since, and—with his stooped presence and piercing eyes—the Irish actor inhabits Beckett’s landscape with such command and humor that it is difficult to imagine him existing offstage. Mandell, whose long Beckett resume includes productions directed by the playwright 40 years ago, uses his melodious bassoon of a voice and expressively weathered features to find nuance and meaning in the play’s sometimes absurd exchanges. While his vigorous agility belies his 84 years, Mandell’s age adds poignancy to Estragon’s incessant questioning, such as an Act Two exchange that ends with him asking, “What do we do now, now that we are happy?” If Estragon is still asking these questions at his age, what hope is there for the rest of us? Or is the fact that he continues to ask, and doesn’t hang himself from the landscape’s lone tree, oddly hopeful?
Both acts are interrupted by the arrival of the posh and tyrannical Pozzo (James Cromwell) dragging his long-suffering slave, Lucky (Hugo Armstrong), on a rope. Cromwell’s bluster and carriage are spot-on (especially in Christopher Acebo’s lush costuming), but he hasn’t yet found Pozzo’s underlying menace. Armstrong’s panting, drooling Lucky is heartbreaking in his silence and thrilling when he explodes with the famous “thinking” speech, pages of nonsense presented as a torrent of profound truth.
Brian Gale’s evocative lights and projections add just the right touch of technological wizardry, with ominous clouds brewing and a sickly moon rising at the end of each act.
Arabian can be a wildly imaginative and political director. He deserves credit for letting Beckett be Beckett here, especially with such expert hands on deck. For it is in the seemingly absurd specificity of the famous tramps’ hilarious and haunting plight that we see ourselves. —Christopher Cappiello