"The Color Purple" has an uplifting message.
But it rises up from a stark story about an abused black woman in a Southern town in the early 20th century. This best-selling novel by Alice Walker was adapted into a popular Steven Spielberg-directed movie and then into a successful Broadway musical. In all of its versions, it makes the most of this woman's determination to overcome adversity.
Even taking that inspirational spirit and some equally spirited musical numbers into account, "The Color Purple" does not exactly seem like a show you would expect to find on the theatrical menu at a dinner theater. Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, which has done adventurous bookings before, deserves credit for doing it.
Although this production has a tendency to treat dramatically volatile material as comic melodrama, the story's emotional power fortunately comes across in several crucial scenes.
The audience cheers at the end of the show for performers who have been able to immerse you in a gospel music-inflected, Deep South environment where issues of race, class and gender are as hot as the weather.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the cheering audience has just enjoyed a dinner theater menu featuring such Southern favorites as fried chicken and collard greens. Food for the soul is important, but it's nice to have it served along with food for the stomach.
Any production of "The Color Purple" rises or falls on the casting of its protagonist, Celie, whose family life provides the grim underpinnings for that eventual uplift. You can discover the horrible details for yourself, but suffice it to say that Celie has been used and abused by the very men who should be protecting her. Celie's initial response as a young woman is passive silence, as if this were all a woman could expect from life; however, she's keenly aware of the injustice of her living conditions and therefore primed to assert herself as a middle-aged woman who gains the courage to speak up and fight back.
Dayna Marie Quincy embodies the character traits you expect to see in Celie, and her moving performance takes you along on Celie's evolution from being a silent victim to an outspoken independent woman. When Quincy vocally asserts herself in the solo musical number "I'm Here," you're definitely there with her.
Lest you think that Celie is out there on her own through all that adversity, there are several other characters who love her and are with her to the extent that they can be together in a story in which relatives and friends are separated for extended periods.
The strongest bond exists between Celie and her sister, Nettie, whose love endures and if anything grows even deeper after Nettie goes off to Africa as a missionary. Incidentally, the scenes set in Africa give this musical a festive excuse for costume changes that set the ensemble loose in vigorous dance numbers that establish the cultural links between black life in America and life back in the mother continent.
Although choreographer Anwar Thomas and co-directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey could tighten the coordinated movement in places, these "Lion King"-evocative dance numbers are great fun to watch. The lively band under musical director Christopher Youstra also does its part to enliven the proceedings.
As for the crucial relationship between Celie and Nettie, there is a convincing rapport between Quincy as Celie and Jessica Coleman as Nettie. That's why it's a shame that a faulty microphone at the reviewed performance made watching Coleman's performance a frustrating experience. You'd hear one of her lines clearly and then the next line would sound muffled. It's the sort of technical glitch that's easily solved, though, so it's safe to assume that the sibling connection will fully register for the rest of the run.
Among others with whom Celie interacts, this country girl has an intriguing relationship with a sophisticated juke joint singer, Shug Avery (Shayla Simmons), who becomes a close friend and even lover. One of the most pointed aspects of novelist Walker's story is that Celie, who finds emotional support from the women in her life, also finds romantic fulfillment there. When this production's Celie and Shug beautifully join voices in the duet "What About Love?," the song goes directly to your own heart.
As for the male characters in "The Color Purple," well, most of them would benefit from sensitivity training. The borderline-monstrous Mister (Mark Anthony Hall), who has amorous claims on both Celie and Shug, is a scary guy. Even he is not beyond redemption, however, which is yet another reason why "The Color Purple" elevates you to a happy mood.
"The Color Purple" runs through Nov. 11 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.