Stearns (who also is executive director of the Mercury Theater) nonetheless makes concessions to size since the Mercury is not a Broadway house (although the stage is nearly as wide as a Broadway stage) nor does it have a Broadway budget. His production tells the decades-spanning tale with only 17 players and an eight-piece orchestra. It features simple, effective, and frequently joyous choreography by Brenda Didier and musical direction by Eugene Dizon who, characteristically, has prepared rich and colorful reductions of the original orchestrations to suit a small ensemble (conducted by Oliver Townsend). The idea is that reduced scale alone will return the focus to Celie, as will the intimacy of a production in which the first row of seats is only two feet from the stage. Indeed, some emotional intimacies are played so close to the audience that I felt I shouldn't be seeing/hearing them. I missed the distance provided by a big stage and a big theater.
Stearns and Dizon are veteran collaborators whose names on a production virtually guarantee first-rate performing talent and musical values, and The Color Purple is no exception. From the intense drama of the book scenes to Celie's yearning for something better she can't quite articulate, audiences will find intact all the show's musical markers of the passing years (blues, gospel, rags, boogie-woogie, swing) as well as its bittersweet emotional sweep. They provide a lot of theatrical bang for the audience's bucks.
Even so, when I saw The Color Purple on Broadway in 2005 it seemed like a musical trying to be all things to all people. If only the creative team had had the courage to begin with Celie's intimate lullaby to her newborn son — which is the emotional starting point — rather than a cliché foot-stomping, gospel-shouting church service. As it stands, the lullaby is the second number. If only they hadn't taken the audience on a colorful but unessential digression to Africa, which pads Act II. Over and over, the most telling songs are the small, brief, intimate ones — not the big numbers. In short, the limitations of the Mercury Theater production are the limitations of the material itself, which is precisely what the Mercury bravely encountered last season with a big revival of Barnum. In contrast, the London production of The Color Purple has eliminated or shortened the big numbers.
Still, the vivid Mercury Theater company takes the cake, or perhaps the huckleberry pie Celie bakes. In their Chicago debuts, Broadway veteran Trisha Jeffrey (Celie) and the imposing Kethon Gipson (Mister) are ideal. She's tiny, he's towering, and both have powerful and flexible pipes. In the supporting women's roles (it's a women's story, after all), Jasondra Johnson (Sofia) and Adrienne Walker (Shug) are as physically different as can be, yet they convey an earthiness, honesty, and sexuality that are at the core of Celie's transformation. Both are excellent singing actors with vocal chops to spare. Additional appealing support comes from Evan Tyrone Martin (Harpo) and the close-harmony church-lady trio of Sydney Charles, Brittany L. Bradshaw, and Carrie Louise Abernathy.
Small picks: Director Stearns is a bit too tasteful in suggesting (or not) the sexual context between Celie and Shug; and Celie remains a puppy-dog little-girl-lost just a bit too long (and doesn't change her dress for years). Stearns and costume designer Frances Maggio also put tiny Trisha Jeffrey in clunky high-heel shoes throughout the show, giving her an awkward forward-leaning walk. Celie is supposed to be gawky and ugly, but this is overkill, which calls unfavorable attention to itself.
The scenic design by Bob Knuth echoes the Broadway original, with weathered barn-siding wings and a cyclorama of ever-changing hues (Nick Belley, lighting design). They provide warmth well-suited to the show and the intimate Mercury Theater. Weathered wood seems to be the material of choice to convey timeless rural poverty as it dominates the London scenic design, as well. In this element at least, Chicago and London are in lock step on how best to serve The Color Purple.