“The Color Purple” has become a modern classic for black casts and anyone who saw the earlier production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Omaha Community Playhouse won’t be surprised to hear that it is another complete success.
This musical version of the Alice Walker novel which led to the Stephen Spielberg film first came to Omaha with a Broadway road company and it was also very appealing. But the Playhouse production directed by Kathy Tyree seemed even stronger in its musical vitality, thanks to everyone from TammyRa’ in the lead role of Celie to Church Ladies as a high-octane Greek chorus.
Playgoers will pick their own favorites, but the preview night audience rooted loudly for Brandi Mercedes Smith as Sofia, when she sings, “Hell No!” That’s her response to men who want to push her around as they’ve done to Celie. Her man Harpo (Anthony Holmes) learns that Sofia’s no mean no.
Two top performers from the “Ain’t Misbehavin’” cast were standouts again, Jus B. as Mister and Dara Hogan as Shug Avery. Mister prefers Celie’s sister Nettie but reluctantly buys Celie from her father and calls her “ugly.”
The company welcomes Shug with “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town,” and Hogan stars in the show’s big production number, “Push a Button.” She befriends Celie and helps her later creation of “Miss Celie’s Pants.”
The songs most central to Celie’s struggle and eventual rise from despair put TammyRa’ in the emotional spotlight with the likes of “Somebody Gonna Love You,” “Dear God,” “What About Love” and, finally, “I’m Here.”
Celie’s separation from her sister Nettie (Brittany Thompson) and her loss of her two babies, taken and given away by her father, provide the power of pathos in Walker’s story, and offer hope for a happy ending.
The quality of both “The Color Purple” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” should bring enthusiastic “Amens” from all who read OCP executive director Katie Broman’s “Note to Our Patrons” in the program. She wrote about past playreading committee decisions to avoid shows with primarily black casts after doubting they could successfully cast them.
“How sad and closed-minded of us,” Broman concluded. While reminding that the Playhouse did wonderful shows with diverse casts from time to time, “they were too few and far between.”
So I’ll sneak in a suggestion: Do “Porgy and Bess.” Sure, it is considered opera, but that’s just a label. The music is memorable in the best tradition of Broadway musicals. The last time I saw the Gershwin masterpiece it wasn’t playing at the Met, but at a mainstream Broadway theater with a cast of Tony-winning stars.
“The Color Purple” continues through March 27 on the Hawks Main Stage of the Omaha Community Playhouse at 6915 Cass St. with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ranging from $25 to $45 are available at ticketomaha.com and by calling the box office, 402.553.0800.