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Toby's Dinner Theatre dazzles with 'The Color Purple'

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Expecting the usual entertaining evening delivered by talented players at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, I found instead a life-affirming, near-religious experience watching "The Color Purple" — a musical epic tracing one woman's journey from abject subjugation in youth to love, power and nobility in later life.

Adapted from Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg's film, the musical follows Celie, from a poor girl in 1911 Georgia, at age 14 in her second pregnancy after being raped by her father, through her struggles until maturity. As in Walker's novel, Celie tells her story in diary-like entries shared with God. Unlike the novel and film, Celie's story is told here in music.

In the preface to her book, Walker says the color purple is always a surprise but is everywhere in nature. Here, "The Color Purple" features music everywhere. Like George Gershwin's American opera "Porgy and Bess," which tells a story of striving, earthy characters, this story is also entirely told in music. But its Grammy-nominated score is more accessible, filled with jazz, blues, pop and gospel created by Brenda Russell, Alice Willis and Stephen Bray. Their music transforms Spielberg's often dark film into a surprisingly uplifting story.

Toby's area-premiere production of this musical, which was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and ran on Broadway for more than two years, is a testament to the theater's adaptability. The Columbia theater's in-the-round form brings the audience close to the action, fully responding to the glorious sound ringing the rafters.

Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence Munsey with musical direction by Christopher Youstra, this remarkable production brings together a powerful cast of actor-singers. Each character grows over a 50-year span, most notably sisters Celie and Nettie, both transformed from lively teenagers to beautiful, accomplished women.

Munsey also serves as costume designer, creating simple farm clothing along with Sunday-best church clothes, glamorous gowns for Shug Avery and fetching pants designs for Celie.

Youstra, a 2008 Helen Hayes Award winner, should be a strong candidate for a shower of awards for his brilliant work here. His five musicians somehow sound like an orchestra of 15.

Another major talent making a contribution is Anwar Thomas, whose choreography is filled with joy, pride, soul and authenticity. In the program notes, Thomas said he was "honored to be the only African-American on the production staff for 'The Color Purple' " — a smart, award-worthy choice.

The opening gospel number, "Mysterious Ways," is passionately delivered by a chorus of powerful voices, instantly inspiring the audience to clap along as if attending a lively revival meeting. The audience remains engaged throughout the 21/2-hour performance as it responds to a gamut of emotions communicated by the soloists.

Dayna Quincy, who had been a member of the musical's national tour, stars in the demanding role of Celie, conveying every emotion with conviction. She brilliantly delivers every song, whether a moving duet of "Our Prayer" with her sister or her triumphant "I'm Here," which precedes a reprise of "The Color Purple" to end the show.

Among other powerful characters is Sofia, a force of nature, brought to life by Baltimore native Theresa Cunningham. As Harpo's love, Cunningham's Sofia conveys a wide range of emotions and rises to formidable heights to deliver her feminist anthem "Hell, No" in a show-stopping moment.

Shayla Simmons delivers an irresistible Shug in sexy layers to create the show's most sensuous moment as she belts out "Push Da Button" — her siren's song featuring the right sinuous moves. Simmons' Shug is equally effective conveying genuine affection for the abused Celie, assuring her that she is "Too Beautiful for Words."

As Celie's beloved sister, Nettie, Jessica Coleman is a loyal, seemingly fearless young girl who breaks away from her abusive father to become part of a missionary family traveling to Africa, where they find a new life. Later, Coleman's Nettie provides a heartfelt scene when she is reunited with Celie and introduces her to her adult children.

National tour member Mark Anthony Hall delivers a menacing Mister, evolving over a lifetime to become more human. Hall's singing impresses in "Shug Avery Comin' to Town" and "Celie's Curse."

Celie's inherited stepson, Harpo, is portrayed by David Little, who seems the loving, ideal mate for Cunningham's Sofia. They offer another show-stopping moment in their duet of "Any Little Thing."

Comic relief is offered by a trio of Church Ladies, who also provide amusing transitions between scenes.

Toby's is offering a 25 percent discount for the Sept. 28 show to Baltimore Sun readers who mention this review when making reservations. Performances continue with shows Tuesday-Sunday evenings, with Sunday matinees, through Nov. 11. For reservations, call 410-730-8311.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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