Strong Cast Brightens 'Color Purple'

It took more than 20 years for Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” to make it to the stage and almost another decade before it was available to community theaters around the country.

South Bend Civic Theatre is the first group in northern Indiana to tackle the demanding property which requires a 99 percent African American cast — the only Caucasian role being that of a jail guard who is less than friendly to his prisoners.

So, in spite of the fact that the acoustical problems still are very apparent throughout, and not alleviated by the awkward staging, the obviously enthusiastic cast rises to the challenge and comes out a real winner in the production which opened Friday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium.

The challenge of turning Walker’s novel (and Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film) into a coherent musical narrative is not totally successful, primarily because it touches so many aspects in the life of Celie (the amazing Makeda Grier) that none gets more than cursory attention.

In the end, that is secondary to the sensitive performances delivered by Grier and her fellow performers, many of whom have not been on stage before.

There are, of course, veteran singer/actors in the large cast. Primary among these are Larisa LeSure who portrays Sofia (the role that was Oprah Winfrey’s film debut), the friend who first shows Celie that a woman can say “Hell, No”; Delshawn Taylor is Harpo, Sofia’s husband who is on the receiving end of her refusal; Jasmine Dennie is Shug Avery, sultry singer who appeals to both sexes; Nettie (Zoe Morgan), Celie’s sister, who escapes her sister’s fate in Africa; David Smith is Pa, their cruel and abusive parent; Ben Little plays Albert Johnson aka Mister, who marries Celie to have a live-in slave; and Laverne McMutuary, Michele Love-Moore and Sheila LeSure are three ladies of the town who serve as narrator/gossips.

The Color Purple South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreGrier, however, is at the core of the action, dramatically and musically. She has a powerful soprano that can rage against her fate and soar in amazement upon discovering “I am beautiful” and she goes from cowering slavey who sadly accepts the abuse of both father and husband to independent woman who stands proudly alone.

This production owes special thanks to the men and women of its chorus who take a variety of roles from southerners to African natives and add a great deal of weight to all the musical numbers.

Jaycee Rohlick’s scenic design underscores the poverty of Celie’s life and allows the color and strength of Africa to take center stage when needed. Costume designer Lois Veen spices the necessary drab of the town with some brightly colored native outfits and especially brilliant ensembles for the three gossips. Check those hats!

The digital music track is well handled and neither deserts nor overpowers the singers who are right with it at all times!

There are only five more performances of this unique production. It is one that definitely should not be missed,

“THE COLOR PURPLE” plays at 7:40 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium at South Bend Civic Theatre,403 N.Main St., South Bend. For reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.

Golf Object of Frantic Fun in ECT Farce

To look at playwright Ken Ludwig’s academic credentials — Haverford College, Harvard Law School and Trinity College at Cambridge University — you would scarcely believe him to be the pre-eminent farce-master of the modern theater.

Believe it!

One of Ludwig’s most recent (2010) creations is a ridiculously fast-paced bit of fluff titled “The Fox on The Fairway,” which opened Friday evening at the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production, directed by Rick Ellis and assistant director Bob Franklin, is graced with a sextet of players who throw themselves (sometimes literally) into the rounds of madness with total disregard for the safety of life and limb.

Having very little knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the game of golf, I have to report that even a little is not necessary to participate in the escalating hi-jinks in the Tap Room of the Quail Valley Country Club. The annual tournament against longtime rivals of the Crouching Squirrel Golf Club is about to be played. The stakes are high and getting higher as club owners/managers Henry Bingham (Bill Svelmoe) of Quail Valley and Dickie Bell of Crouching Squirrel (Joshua D. Padgett) indulge in pre-tournament one-upmanship, each certain that he has the key to winning.

The key is in the form of one team member, initially with Quail Valley, who has secretly jumped teams leaving Bingham holding a large bet that suddenly seems a losing one.

Fox on the Fairway  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INSuccess may be within his reach, however, due to the discovery that a new employee, young Justin Hicks (Kenny Prawat), recently engaged to club waitress and student Louise Heindbader (Kaitrin Higbee), may be a ringer. Bingham finds an ally in Pamela Peabody (April Sellers) club board member and ex-wife of Dickie, who offers her complete support — and then some! Unfortunately, some of her caustic dialogue was lost Friday due to lack of projection. Nothing that cannot be remedied.

All is well until — but wait. No need to spoil all the fun, Enough to say that what happens next includes a grandmother’s engagement ring, an expensive vase, a broken arm and a great deal of double-dealing — and that’s just for starters!

Led by Prawat and Svelmoe, the action ramps up and up and up without missing a beat — or a stroke. Frantic finds new meaning in the hands of Svelmoe, a talented farceur who evokes memories of the late Paul Lynde. Going from full speed ahead to instant reverse, he never falters. His scenes with Sellers are models of comic timing, ditto that duo’s work with Prawat.

As the babes-in-the-rough, Prawat and Higbee deliver delightful innocents who really are too dumb to survive but manage to blunder their way through to a happy ending.

Fox on the Fairway  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INJennie DeDario as Muriel Bingham, Henry’s dreaded wife, makes up in attitude what she lacks in stature, wielding a folded paper with the force of a battering ram on whoever is in her way. Padgett as the Mr. Malaprop of Crouching Squirrel gets to gloat and taunt his rival smugly (if incorrectly!) while bravely costumed in some increasingly ugly sweaters.

True to Ludwig form, mix-up piles on mix-up as the characters advance and retreat until the final tableau. Scenes are prefaced by TV announcers sharing some very old (and very bad) golf jokes and clichés.

The costumes coordinated by Sherry Martin fit each characters although I did wish for Padgett’s golf outfits to be more outlandish from top to bottom. The set design by John Shoup captures the old English aura of many of the more traditional golf clubs.

Under Ellis’ sharp eye, what happens inside that club is traditional Ken Ludwig!

Fore!

“FOX ON THE FAIRWAY” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120 in Bristol. For reservations, call 848-4116 between noon and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.