Produced by: Hillbarn Theatre
Featuring: Leslie Ivy, Jacqueline Dennis, Dawn L. Troupe, Anthone D. Jackson, Jihan Sabir, Brian M. Landry, Damaris Divito, Ladidi Garba, Debra Harvey, Pam Drummer-Williams, Andy Serrano, Max Williams, AnJu Hyppolite, Phaedra Johnson, Samantha Moorer, Kevin Stanford, Gary Stanford Jr., Willie Swann, Leylan Williams, Dimitri Woods, Maya Benjamin, NuPhaeya Hassen, Kiara Johnson
Directed by: Lee Foster
When: May 8 through June 1, 2014. Extended through June 6, 2014.
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California
Tickets:$28-$38 (discounts available). Call 650-349-6411 or visit hillbarntheatre.org
"The Color Purple" is another ambitious production at Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, the little theater that can and does.
It often seems like magic, what Hillbarn does in its little auditorium. Just 179 seats and a big concrete floor for a stage, Hillbarn still manages to put on some amazing, big shows.
"The Color Purple," for instance, running through June 1 with its cast of 23, and a beautiful set by Kuo-Hao Lo (who also did the amazing set for "Spamalot" at Hillbarn, and who just did "Young Frankenstein" for Palo Alto Players).
It's a good show, with so much singing that it's nearly an opera, but with enough dialogue and dancing to keep the musical moniker. And wow, what dancing! With choreography by Jayne Zaban, the entire cast fills up every inch of the stage with every kind of dance move, providing excitement and often humor to a show that grapples with some ugly bits of Americana.
"The Color Purple" is based on the Alice Walker novel that tells the story of Celie, who is 14 when we meet her, giving up her second baby to Pa, the man who impregnated her. She thinks Pa is her father, and doesn't know what he's done with her babies. Andy Serrano is very good as Pa it's a brave thing to play so unappealing a character.
Celie's joy in life is her sister Nettie, and when a creepy man comes along and wants to take Nettie as his wife, Celie objects. The man who impregnated her ends up trading a cow to the creep, Mr.________, and throws in Celie to sweeten the deal.
Thus begin nightmarish decades for Celie. Nettie disappears, and Celie is stuck taking care of Mr.________' s house and children, and receiving him without love into her barren body every night. And listening to him yelling at her and calling her ugly.
Leslie Ivy is terrific as Celie, carrying her pain and anger through the show, but expressing love when she can, and singing with great power and beauty. (Ivy was delightful in "All Shook Up" at Foothill Music Theatre in 2012.)
"People always make things worse for each other," Celie writes in a letter to her sister, kind of summing up all the horrid things that happen in this story (before happiness finally rises, like the sun chasing away the horrors of a very bad night). And when she begins to have a crisis of faith, she says, in dialogue, "If God ever listened to poor colored women, this world would be a different place. ... God is just another man, trifling and low-down."
It is a story of a grim time 1909 in Georgia, through 1945 in Tennessee. Celie may have been born a few decades after the abolition of slavery, but she is still an abused slave, held by the mean black man who is every bit as despicable as the old white slave owners.
Anthone D. Jackson is a powerful presence as Mr.________. Every time he enters, it's all we can do in the audience to not hiss and boo. Mr.________ sees the light part way through Act II, and Jackson's transition is handsome to watch.
Dawn L. Troupe, this production's only Equity member, is sexy and human as Shug, the only woman Mr.________ ever really loved. A woman who travels, singing in juke joints, when she comes back to town, sick, Mr.________ takes her in, giving Celie another person care for. (Troupe was recently in "Once On This Island" at TheatreWorks.) Shug is surprised when she learns Celie doesn't like sex with Mr.________. Celie and Shug come to love each other, which is a factor in Celie coming to understand that she isn't ugly, and doesn't have to put up with Mr.________.
The cast is impressively good. Jacqueline Dennis as Nettie has some fabulous duets with Ivy as Celie early in the first act that tell us all about what singing in harmony means. Beautiful! Jihan Sabir as Sofia is so pretty and sexy it is easy to see why Harpo, played by Brian M. Landry, falls for her. She's tough, too, so when Harpo tries to be like his daddy, Mr.________, and push her around, she thumps him good, and leaves.
Harpo then turns their home into a juke joint and takes up with the barmaid and want-to-be singer Squeak, played with endless charm and beauty by Demaris Divito.
Gary Stanford Jr. is great, very appealing, as the preacher, leading a wonderful, rousing church service with singin' and dancin' that gospel. He is also the African chief in Act 2.
Ladidi Garba, Debra Harvey and Pam Drummer-Williams are the Church Ladies, who wander through the complicated story like a tripartite Greek Chorus, commenting and carrying on.
Fabulous cast of singers and dancers.
The sound was a bit problematical. Best advice is to not sit house right, and not right in front. The sound mix will be better the closer you get to the back, where the mixing board sits. Dialogue could be heard fairly well, even from where I sat house right, front row but there is a lot of exposition in the songs, and that was harder to decipher in the sound mix on Sunday including in other spots than where I was sitting.
Someone in the audience was concerned because it wasn't a live band, but as Lee Foster, the director, pointed out in a quick interview, they had no place to put a band. It's a big score, would require a big band. And, of course, money is saved by renting the tracks, and Hillbarn is generally not overfunded. Musical director Greg Sudmeier (or his deputy) sits at a computer and follows actor cues to know when to play what track. It works just fine. It'd be nice to see more musicians getting live work, but sometimes we don't always get what we want.
Lighting, by Don Coluzzi, was a organic part of telling the story. Dee Morrissey did an excellent job with makeup and wigs, helping the cast age gracefully over the decades of the story. Margaret Toomey's costumes were spot-on, again transitioning time.
There's a great fight, between Sofia and Squeak, choreographed by incoming Hillbarn Executive Director Dan Demers. Squeak is supposed to get her teeth knocked out in that fight, but Divito has such a sunshiny, toothy smile seen brightly during the happy ending that it would take some amazing makeup, indeed, to hide it.
It's a fine show, with great singing, dancing and acting.
Email John Orr at email@example.com