RedEye

THEATER REVIEW: "The Color Purple" at the Mercury Theater ★★★

Many an experienced New York producer has taken a look at the Mercury Theater, located in the heart of Chicago's Southport Avenue corridor but bereft of fly space and wing space, and declared it fit only for cabarets and diminutive revues. L. Walter Stearns, who owns, operates and directs at the joint, hasn't listened and just poured new money into the sound system. The result is the thrilling wall of harmonic sound from a mostly Equity company of African-American actors that flows out in great emotional waves in the first made-in-Chicago production of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple."

It is a genuinely eye-popping achievement. Stearns' "Color Purple" features a company of 16, which is about half the size of the 2005 Broadway original, but these actors are performing in a theater about a tenth of the size of the Cadillac Palace, where this title last played in Chicago (at much higher prices). It's hard to overstate the advantage of this intimacy for a piece that tells such a personal story.

"The Color Purple" has been enjoying new popularity and acclaim since it became available for production in more intimate incarnations (John Doyle's London staging recently made a splash). Stearns' version is by no means a feast of new ideas or notions of revisionist staging, although some of Brenda Didier's choreography is exceedingly fresh and accomplished. And there are moments when easier choices are made when greater depths of emotional complexity would be preferable. But this cast is exceptionally committed and musically adept — the ensemble singing, under musical director Eugene Dizon, is thrilling in this shared space and the nattering church ladies (played by Sydney Charles, Carrie Louise Abernathy and Brittany L. Bradshaw) own the entire theater. And when Stearns essentially plonks Trisha Jeffrey, the young Broadway actress playing Celie, in the middle of the stage, this emotive, honest young performer is able, it feels, to reach out over the first several rows of seats during the ballad "What About Love?"

Jeffrey struggles a little with the demands of Celie's aging (she overdoes it at the start and is a bit uncertain at the end) and, especially in a disappointing final scene that looks like everyone ran out of time, she could show us more of the character's complex understanding of pain and forgiveness, especially as it relates to her oppressor, Mister (the honest Keithon Gipson, who has some challenges, and also successes, of his own). But if you are a fan of this score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, you will absolutely want to hear Jeffrey, whose lower register is especially gorgeous, sing the role. More importantly yet, her Celie is intensely empathetic. Indeed, you find yourself caring greatly about these characters here, which is what matters most of all.

Adrienne Walker focuses more on the comedy and sensuality of Shug Avery, which gets her about two-thirds of the way there, and there's a very likable (and well-sung) character turn from Ninah Snipes as Squeak. But the revelatory performance here is Jasondra Johnson as Sofia, a role made famous by Oprah Winfrey on screen and Chicago's own Felicia P. Fields on Broadway.

Johnson, who has huge pipes and, clearly, a big heart, burrows deep inside the emotional trajectory of this character and, along with the superb Evan Tyrone Martin as Harpo and with these things being very much connected, she seems to find yet more of the multihued human comedy of resilience and love.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Oct. 27

Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $22-$59 at 773-325-1700 and mercurytheaterchicago.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • The Kids These Days family tree

    The Kids These Days family tree

    From its 2009 beginnings to its 2013 demise, Chicago's Kids These Days seemed like one of the most promising acts the city had seen in years. While the band split up at the height of its hype, its members have since gone on to do bigger and better things—seriously impressive considering the hip-hop/rock/jazz...

  • Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Chicago sues red light camera firm for $300 million

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has sued Chicago's former red light camera operator, Redflex Traffic Systems, for more than $300 million on grounds the entire program was built on a $2 million bribery scheme at City Hall that has already led to federal corruption convictions.

  • Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    Solid 'Gold': How ex-Kids These Days members came back stronger as Marrow

    After the dissolution of Kids These Days, the much-buzzed about Chicago fusion-jazz-rock-rap septet that split in spring 2013 just a few months after releasing its only album, “Traphouse Rock,” some of its members spent what seems like all of 20 minutes bandless. "We were driving back from the...

  • Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Mr Twin Sister's 'In the House of Yes' is one of last year's hidden treasures

    Welcome to RedEye's "Song of the Day," an ongoing feature where music reporter Josh Terry or another RedEye staff member highlights something they're listening to. Some days the track will be new, and some days it will be old. No matter what, each offering is something you should check out. Check...

  • GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    GrubHub's weekend customer-support issues made people hangry

    Technical difficulties at GrubHub and Seamless over the weekend drove hordes of hangry would-be customers to air their grievances on social media. The food ordering and delivery sites, which merged in 2013 and use GrubHub’s back-end technology, errantly accepted payments on Saturday evening without...

  • One dead in Heart of Chicago after being shot by police

    One dead in Heart of Chicago after being shot by police

    A 29-year-old man died after being shot by police on the Lower West Side early Saturday, police said.

Comments
Loading
83°