‘Purple’ Boosted by Powerful Voice in Signature Theater


Before the musical version of “Purple” hits theaters next year — Featuring Fantasia — the Signature Theatre is cracking the often-played tale of the brutal Ciri blossom. The programs are harmonious, thanks to the strong guts of a cast led by singing generator Nova Y. Payton, a young black queer woman in the early 20th century South who awakens to the power of her voice, sexuality, and imagination.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, Celie’s Dickensian journey of suffering and redemption is written by Brenda Russell, Ellie Willis Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s blues scores. This 2005 musical benefits from director Timothy Douglas’ clever placement on Tony Cisek’s set of weather-beaten shutters that open to reveal Sealy’s long-lost life. The fate of sister Nettie (a lively and cheerful Kyra Gross).

It’s a riveting musical, though not a musical for the times. Signature’s entry reliably delivers that heady, delightfully fast-paced number. But Martha Norman’s blog-filled book, which attempts to jump through the narrative’s numerous events and episodes, ends up feeling moot: it jumps with the brilliance of the opera’s lyrics. It’s especially unacceptable that the musical’s main show, “Mr.” — beautifully sung by Torrey Linder — seems to go from abusive monsters to reformed angels overnight.

If you can get used to the shorthand for storytelling, “Purple” will be a delightful evening. Peyton, one of the standouts at the Washington Musical Theatre, added Sealy to the pantheon of effusive roles she played, including bittersweet in the Round House Theatre’s brilliant “Caroline, or Change” The housekeeper, and the stressed restaurateur in the recently flawed musical. “Grace,” at Ford’s Theater.

Here, Payton’s real modesty—if she’s a heroine, she’s a humble person—helps her a lot. The actress bent her shoulders and lowered her eyes, as if digesting the insults and deprivations her husband had done to her, as if it was sadly deserved by Sealy. Her libido ignited, sparked by her encounter with juke-joint chanteuse Shug Avery (an alluring target, Danielle J. Summons), liberates Payton’s character: the shoulders relax and the mask of servile pain disappears. Celie’s boost to true self-confidence culminates in her second act aria “I’m Here”, which Payton sings on her signature foolproof belt.

With assistance from music director Mark G. Meadows, the band of eight and choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi, Douglas creates a riveting comedy for Solomon Parker III as Mr. Harpo, the compassionate son of Mr. He is married to Sofia, another strong wind character in the story. This is Oprah Winfrey in 1985 directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Gold Fort (Whoopi Goldberg) starred as a supporting role in the film version of Celie. Frenchie Davis is Signature’s Sofia, and she’s delighted to have accomplished the daunting task of bringing an uplifting energy to Sofia’s provocative, proto-feminist anthem “Hell No!”

Costume designer Kara Harmon draped characters in bold colors and silhouettes, and special treats from Jalisa Williams, Gabrielle Rice, and Nia Savoy-Dock served as endless small-town gossip. (Think of the “musicians” “picking a little talk” ladies transplanted to the Deep South.)

Sweet stage effects embroider the final moments of the evening as Celie’s happiness blooms. Through Peyton’s compelling performance phase, you may find it’s your own empathy that blooms.

Purple, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Martha Norman’s book. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Music Direction, Mark G. Meadows; Sets, Tony Cissek; Choreography, Dane Figueroa Edidi; Costumes, Carla Harmon; Lighting, Peter Maladuddin; Sound, Ryan · Hickey. With Keenan McCarter, Stephawn P. Stephens, Temídayo Amay. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Through October 9, at the Signature Theater at 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.

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