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Tacoma Musical Playhouse's 'The Color Purple'

An unusual musical

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The concept of The Color Purple as a stage musical seems to evoke the same reaction in virtually everyone - at least everyone I know.

And that reaction is, "Huh?"

Alice Walker's Pulitzer-winning novel follows Celie, a young black woman in 1930s Georgia, from a childhood of rape by her father, into forced loveless marriage, the loss of her sister and only true friend, abuse, sexual awakening, loss of faith and ultimate redemption.

Heady stuff. Which is not to say that musicals can't successfully take on serious material, but one still can't shake the feeling that something is a little off throughout the Tacoma Musical Playhouse production.

Despite that odd sensation, there is plenty to enjoy about The Color Purple. The cast of TMP's production provides several highlights. Stacie Calkins is a long-time mainstay of the Tacoma theater community, and has never failed to impress over the years. In the lead role of Celie, Calkins has ample opportunity to flex her acting chops and her powerful voice.

Celie's largely cruel and uncaring husband, known for the most part only as "Mister," is played in early life by Vincent Orduna - portrayed as not an evil man, but more of a fool, long unable to comprehend the error in his own feeling of entitlement. Celie mirrors this, blithely accepting her own ill fortunes.

The real crowd-pleaser of the evening, though, is Antonia Darlene as the thoroughly sass-tastic, take-no-crap Sofia. When her husband tries to beat a little respect into her - on the advice of his father - he ends up with a convincing story of being kicked by a mule. And her response to any displeasure is a hearty, "Hell no."

One strong argument in favor of turning such a story into a musical are the possibilities inherent in the music itself. African-American culture of the ‘30s, from jazz to gospel to the forebears of rock and roll, spawned some of the most vibrant musical revolutions of American history.

The Color Purple capitalizes on this treasure trove of material somewhat, but also falls too often into conventional Broadway musical tropes, which is somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, when the whole cast and band get going in an energetic gospel number, such as the one that opens the show, upon God's "Mysterious Ways" - a hint at the issues of faith to be addressed - it is enough to get an audience clapping right along.

The Color Purple ultimately emerges as a crowd pleaser and something of a feel-good piece - not exactly two phrases that are usually associated with the novel or Spielberg film, but right in the wheelhouse of Tacoma Musical Playhouse.

[Tacoma Musical Playhouse, The Color Purple, through April 1, Friday - Saturday 8 p.m., Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1 2 p.m., $20-$27, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.565.6867]

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