With a trio of outstanding performances from its three leading ladies, Circle Players’ production of The Color Purple is a prime example of the heights community theater can achieve through an artful blending of ambition, creativity and strong casting choices. Presented in collaboration with Tennessee State University’s theatre program, the musical retains all the heartfelt emotion, the enduring beauty and the constant reminder that the heart is indeed larger than the world in which it exists that we first experienced in Alice Walker’s remarkable novel, then later in Stephen Spielberg’s deeply affecting film adaptation.
Under the clear and focused direction of Tim Larson and Clay Hillwig, who heretofore separately have provided Nashville audiences with a number of impressive theatrical adventures, this evocation of The Color Purple is made all the more appealing by its trio of leading ladies—LaToya Gardner as Celie, J. Karen Thomas as Shug Avery and Cristina Fentress as Sofia—each of whom deliver terrific performances that are made all the more compelling and relevant when compared to the other actresses who have come before them to bring these beloved characters to life.
Gardner, who this year has added some of musical theater’s most electrifying roles to her resume (including her recent star turn in Circle Players’ Aida and her appearances in Crowns and Caroline, or Change), completely cloaks herself in the character of Celie, resulting in a moving performance that is startling in its intensity, heartbreakingly genuine in its delivery. The beautiful Gardner somehow makes herself plain to play the self-effacing Celie, capturing her character’s ability to hope and dream even in the deepest haunts of despair. Her superb and believable interactions with her co-stars give further proof that Gardner is one of Nashville’s finest actresses and her rendition of Celie’s anthemic “I’m Here” is as soul-stirring as ever in her capable hands.
As the sexy, sensual and vampy Shug Avery, Thomas makes a return to the Nashville stage after far too long an absence in a role that seems tailor-made for her. Her tremendous stage presence makes her the ideal choice to play Shug and she exudes a confidence that allows her to play the character’s lowest points and her greatest heights with nary a sense of false theatricality. Thomas’ performance of “Push Da Button” is as good as any we’ve heard since the show debuted on Broadway in 2005. Thomas, who is cast as a recurring character on ABC’s Nashville television series, previously made a name for herself on the Nashville stage some years ago prior to a move to the West Coast.
As good as both Gardner and Thomas are, however, it’s Fentress’ irascible Sofia who very nearly steals the show from her estimable co-stars. From her very first onstage appearance—when the confident Sofia comes a’calling at Mister’s farm, her big belly arriving before she does—Fentress takes on her role with a graceful self-assurance that recalls Oprah Winfrey’s in the movie while making the role her on. Throughout the rest of the show, Fentress’ quick wit and surefooted movements ensure that Sofia will endear herself to the audience.
Cast as the primary men in the company, James Rudolph (as Mister) and Justin Boyd (as Harpo) deliver finely delineated portrayals that go beyond the script-bound conventions to create genuinely effective characters. As a longtime member of the local theater community, it’s wonderful to see Rudolph taking on the challenge of portraying such an unlikable character (who, truth be told, morphs into so much more than you might expect if your only reference is the movie version of the story) with a sense of grace. He excels, proving himself much more adept an actor than other roles have allowed. Boyd is perfectly cast as Harpo, playing him with a blend of boyish charm and gullibility and a man’s notion of what it means to be a man in the world in which he lives. Both actors shine in their onstage relationships with the trio of powerful female figures created by Walker.