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Theater review: 'The Color Purple' at Celebration Theatre

March 14, 2012 | 11:22 am

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Everybody say "amen": The joint is jumping over at Celebration Theatre with its raucous, exultant staging of “The Color Purple.” Featuring a cast of 17 and a vibrant five-piece orchestra tucked behind an upstage planked wall, this L.A. intimate-theater premiere sweeps you along like an old-fashioned tent revival.

Set against the backdrop of the Depression-era Deep South, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of an ugly duckling’s journey to joyful self-acceptance has biblical sweep. Impoverished African American teen Celie (Cesili Williams) struggles to escape a cycle of abuse from her father (Corey Jones) and husband, Mister (Michael A. Sheppard); meanwhile, her sister, Nettie (the luminous Kelly M. Jenrette), travels across continents in search of her life’s mission.  

It’s tough to dramatize Celie’s internal liberation, so “Purple” charts her progress through encounters with female role models. Defiant Sofia (vocal powerhouse Constance Jewell Lopez) won’t kowtow to husband Harpo (Terrance Spencer) or the town’s white mayor; chanteuse Shug Avery (“American Idol” finalist La Toya London) encourages Celie to embrace her sensuality and true sexual orientation.

Marsha Norman’s respectful book inevitably simplifies Celie’s struggle, and some of director Michael Matthews’ scene work feels overstated. The strength of the production is its unabashed theatricality, and Matthews and company work wonders with the songs by Brenda Russell Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, including the gospel-inflected “Mysterious Ways,” the irresistible “Brown Betty” and the moody “African Homeland.”  (The choreography is courtesy of Janet Roston).

The up-tempo cast is terrific, led by the lovely, soulful Williams as Celie, whose wary smile breaks your heart. (And church ladies and local gossips Sixx Carter, Lorie V. Moore and Brittney S. Wheeler steal every scene they’re in.)

Above all, this exuberant “Color Purple” creates an opportunity to count blessings -- including 99-seat theaters that take on challenging shows with minimal budgets. Celebration Theatre’s raise-the-roof production shows up the bigger, better-funded venues in town. In L.A., less is so often more. Pantages, Center Theatre Group, La Mirada, are you watching?  

--Charlotte Stoudt

More theater reviews from the Los Angeles Times

“The Color Purple,” Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 26. $34. Contact: (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes. 

Photo: Cesili Williams, left, and La Toya London. Credit: Barry Weiss

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