Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo opened its 2010-2011 season Tuesday evening with the first of its Broadway in Western Michigan series, the musical “The Color Purple.” For those not there, this was — to quote another musical — a “one night only” performance. It was an excellent non-Equity production of the big musical (11 Tony nominations) that ran for more than two years on Broadway. I note this difference, because there is always a question about non-Equity shows, the answer to which frequently falls on the side of “if it’s not Equity (union), it can’t be too good.”
I must say I have seen touring productions that definitely fell in that category. But lately, the more youthful casts have made up in talent and enthusiasm for the lack of rich production values, a good thing, since almost 100 percent of the tours are non-Equity. The reason, of course, is the cost. Having seen “Purple” in New York, I can say that the the only real difference in this scaled-down tour is in the much more minimal sets. The 12 principal players are just as ably supported by 13 hard-working ensemble members who change costumes and personas frequently as the scenes require — from devout church goers to juke joint revelers to African tribal natives. The show, based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was preceded by 20 years by Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film version, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey. The role of Celie, for which LaChanze earned a Tony Award as best actress, is, to quote my grandmother “a real gut-buster!”
As Celie, young Dayna Jarae Dantzler is required not only to age 40 years from first curtain to last, but must believably deliver the personal changes as the abused 14-year-old (two children by her father who gave them away at birth) moves from terrified slavey to strong and emotionally emancipated woman. She is in almost every scene and is vocally awesome, belting defiance to the rafters, softly comforting her newborn baby or wondering at the awakening of a new kind of love. It is a tour de force role and Dantzler handles it with impressive depth and ease. The featured cast members are equally impressive. Most especially the always-audience-favorite character of Sofia, played with show-stopping hutzpah by Pam Trotter; Mister, Celie’s arrogantly abusive husband, in which Edward C. Smith transitions beautifully from the man you have to hate to one who deserves forgiveness; Taprena Augustine as the object of Mister’s affection, Shug Avery, a singer with a raging libido and a lot of problems; Lee Edward Colston II is Harpo, Celie’s stepson and Sofia’s husband; and a trio of hilariously snarky Church Ladies who Nesha Ward, Virlinda Stanton and Deaun Parker bring to gossipy perfection.
There are many others and, unfortunately, the second act is way too long and too slow or, perhaps, it is just that most of the drama is in Act I (excepting Celie’s Thanksgiving emancipation proclamation), and by the final picnic, the quick fix of all the problems, with everyone paired off for a Pollyanna-ish ending, still seems forced. Next up in the Broadway series at Miller is “Legally Blonde” which will stop over Oct. 14-15, “Spring Awakening,” another one-night-only must-see, Nov. 4; Blue Man Group, Feb, 15-16.; and”Monty Python’s Spamalot,” May 10-11. No question, however, the real biggie for this Miller season is “Wicked,” which will fly into Kalamazoo Dec. 1-12. Tickets available now at (269) 387-2300. Check out the complete season lineup at www.Miller Auditorium.com. It includes Bob Dylan, the Russian National Ballet Theatre, Last Comic Standing, Jazz Masters with Kurt Elling, David Sedaris, Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance” and Vicki Lawrence & Mama: A Two Woman Show. NOTE: All of these are one-night-only.