Many an experienced New York producer has taken a look at the Mercury Theater, located in the heart of Chicago's Southport Avenue corridor but bereft of fly space and wing space, and declared it fit only for cabarets and diminutive revues. L. Walter Stearns, who owns, operates and directs at the joint, hasn't listened and just poured new money into the sound system. The result is the thrilling wall of harmonic sound from a mostly Equity company of African-American actors that flows out in great emotional waves in the first made-in-Chicago production of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple."
It is a genuinely eye-popping achievement. Stearns' "Color Purple" features a company of 16, which is about half the size of the 2005 Broadway original, but these actors are performing in a theater about a tenth of the size of the Cadillac Palace, where this title last played in Chicago (at much higher prices). It's hard to overstate the advantage of this intimacy for a piece that tells such a personal story.
"The Color Purple" has been enjoying new popularity and acclaim since it became available for production in more intimate incarnations (John Doyle's London staging recently made a splash). Stearns' version is by no means a feast of new ideas or notions of revisionist staging, although some of Brenda Didier's choreography is exceedingly fresh and accomplished. And there are moments when easier choices are made when greater depths of emotional complexity would be preferable. But this cast is exceptionally committed and musically adept — the ensemble singing, under musical director Eugene Dizon, is thrilling in this shared space and the nattering church ladies (played by Sydney Charles, Carrie Louise Abernathy and Brittany L. Bradshaw) own the entire theater. And when Stearns essentially plonks Trisha Jeffrey, the young Broadway actress playing Celie, in the middle of the stage, this emotive, honest young performer is able, it feels, to reach out over the first several rows of seats during the ballad "What About Love?"
Jeffrey struggles a little with the demands of Celie's aging (she overdoes it at the start and is a bit uncertain at the end) and, especially in a disappointing final scene that looks like everyone ran out of time, she could show us more of the character's complex understanding of pain and forgiveness, especially as it relates to her oppressor, Mister (the honest Keithon Gipson, who has some challenges, and also successes, of his own). But if you are a fan of this score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, you will absolutely want to hear Jeffrey, whose lower register is especially gorgeous, sing the role. More importantly yet, her Celie is intensely empathetic. Indeed, you find yourself caring greatly about these characters here, which is what matters most of all.
Adrienne Walker focuses more on the comedy and sensuality of Shug Avery, which gets her about two-thirds of the way there, and there's a very likable (and well-sung) character turn from Ninah Snipes as Squeak. But the revelatory performance here is Jasondra Johnson as Sofia, a role made famous by Oprah Winfrey on screen and Chicago's own Felicia P. Fields on Broadway.
Johnson, who has huge pipes and, clearly, a big heart, burrows deep inside the emotional trajectory of this character and, along with the superb Evan Tyrone Martin as Harpo and with these things being very much connected, she seems to find yet more of the multihued human comedy of resilience and love.
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $22-$59 at 773-325-1700 and mercurytheaterchicago.com