CorLesia Smith delivers an awesome performance as Celie in Karamu House’s The Color Purple, from Celie’s innocent, patty-cake-playing days through her terrible struggles with abuse starting in her teen years and into her growing strength and ultimate blossoming.
Smith is completely believable at every stage of her character’s evolution — the work of an incredibly committed and talented actress.
Subtitled The Musical about Love, the show is being reprised at Karamu in Cleveland two years after its successful debut there. Smith, in her third year performing at Karamu, played sister Nettie in the 2012 production.
The actress, an alumna of Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Academy, portrays a timid, submissive, sweet young girl who keeps her head down yet remains ever hopeful that she will be reunited with her beloved sister. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker, this story shows how the power of love enables Celie to overcome years of rape, incest and other physical abuse.
Smith, who sings low alto, also has musical versatility, from her sweet lullaby to her baby, Somebody Gonna Love You, to her powerful railing against her abuser in I Curse You Mister. The story begins in rural Georgia in 1909 with Celie as a pregnant 14-year-old. Pa confiscates Celie’s baby and later gives Celie away to Mister, along with a cow, to be his wife.
Akron’s John Dayo-Aliya plays Mister with a forcefulness and lasciviousness that is chilling. Dayo-Aliya is a towering presence whose looks and demeanor belie his 20-something years. Yet this actor successfully shows audiences that not even Mister is pure evil.
The biggest disappointment about this musical, directed by Karamu Executive Director Terrence Spivey, is that it is performed to a pre-recorded accompaniment. No matter how powerful the voices onstage are, that diminishes the live performance, allowing for no interplay between singers and musicians and cheapening the overall product.
And the ticket prices are steep, $35 to $40, considering audiences aren’t getting a live orchestra.
On Friday, the recorded sound was overwhelming the onstage vocals to the point where too many lyrics were indistinguishable in Act I. Simply put, sound imbalance was a problem.
When Karamu premiered the show in 2012, a live orchestra played. Spivey said this year’s use of a recording was a cost-cutting measure.
The musical’s gospel, blues, pop and jazz score is a delight, from the sexy, honky tonk flair of Push Da Button to the thrilling gospel sounds of the title song and Mysterious Ways. The church lady gossip trio of Jaqueline Lockett, Joyce Linzy and Layne Farr (of Akron) also provides masterful harmonies.
The musical ran from 2005 to 2008 on Broadway, with LaChanze winning a Tony for originating the role of Celie. Spivey spent a couple of years working on getting the rights to the show last time as The Color Purple was in the midst of three national tours.
Smith’s Celie begins to see a positive female role model in daughter-in-law Sofia, a force of nature played by the wonderful Christina Johnson. Sofia shows Celie how she stands up to her husband, Harpo (Dyrell Barnett).
Johnson has one of the musical’s best numbers, showing her fighting spirit in Hell No! Later, she and Barnett have a wonderful flirtation in Any Little Thing.
The character Shug is the key to Celie learning to love herself and discover the divine within. Sexy blues singer Shug, Mister’s longtime lover, shakes up the town every time she arrives.
But given the excitement that precedes Shug’s arrival, Cherie McElroy-Burch’s ill-fitting red dress is not a showstopper. She also has odd body language for her entrance, looking like she’s sleeping standing up in a scene that’s supposed to establish that Shug is unwell.
McElroy-Burch brings equal measures of sassiness and tenderness to her pivotal role. Celie brings her character back from sickness and Shug helps Celie find her peace.
Although the musical has sound problems and uneven performances in the first act, its second act — dominated by emotional character transformations — is deeply moving. The ensemble singing is also glorious, from the spirited African Homeland to the tear-inducing reprise of The Color Purple.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.