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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008

Oprah's Musical

The Color Purple comes to Milwaukee

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  Certain authors are gifted with the ability to create characters that simply cry out to be transferred to movie screens and theater stages. Alice Walker provided a shining example in Celie, the principal character in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. Steven Spielberg first brought Celie to life on the silver screen in 1985, when he earned 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Later, Quincy Jones (who wrote the movie's score) and lead-producer Scott Sanders set the stage for a theater production in "Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple."

  Winfrey, who made her screen debut in Spielberg's movie, has said that the novel "became a force in my life." Clearly, she's not alone. The stage production of The Color Purple has proven as popular as the film version, earning 11 Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

  Following critical huzzahs and 940 performances on Broadway, the first North American touring production of The Color Purple comes to the Marcus Center's Uihlein Hall from Aug. 12-17.

Country Cruelty

  All of Walker's main characters come alive onstage, including the nice ones (Celie, Sophia, Harpo, Squeak, Shug Avery, Nettie) and the not-so-nice ones (Pa and especially the abusive Mister).

  Through a series of letters, The Color Purple chronicles the slow maturing of Celie in rural Georgia from 1909 to 1949. The story begins with 14-year-old Celie giving birth to two children-both the results of rape. The children are taken from her and she is falsely told that "they were given to God"-namely, put to death.

  That untrue cruelty, coupled with the forced departure of her sister Nettie-her only intimate friend and one whom she adores-brings Celie to her knees. At her lowest point, she begins writing her first letter (with many to follow) to God. "Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me," she implores.

  Midway through her life, Celie addresses and mails her letters to the once-banished Nettie, believed dead but actually doing missionary work in Africa. The two swap stories of their lives in almost-dialogue format. It is then Celie learns that her children live.

  It may be difficult to imagine how such a grim story at the start can result in a musical that has earned high, critical praise with such New York press headlines as "Pure Heart," "Vibrant and Winning" and "Sings to the Soul." But watching Celie's emotional and spiritual growth from stunted, wooden beginnings is inspiring, as this abused girl struggles to find independence.

Memorable Music

  Purple's 18 musical numbers, drawing from jazz, pop, the blues and gospel, were written by three composer/lyricists, all working together and all making their Broadway debuts: Brenda Russell, four-time Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter; Allee Willis, who won a Grammy Award for the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack; and Stephen Bray, whose collaboration with Madonna resulted in a fistful of top 10 hits in the '80s.

  Not your typical, theater-seasoned Rodgers & Hammerstein or Kander & Ebb-except, that is, for their equally creative will to musically support and embellish Celie's story. From the children singing "Huckleberry Pie" to open the show to the reprise of "The Color Purple" that ends it, each number proves to be a perfect fit.

  The musical also benefits from Walker's acknowledgement that creativity requires space, as she stepped into the background and placed absolute trust in playwright Marsha Norman's transfer of the story from the page to the stage. Coincidentally, Norman's play 'Night,Mother won a Pulitzer for drama on the same day TheColor Purple received its own recognition in 1983.

  For more information, call the Marcus Center box office at (414) 273-7206 or visit www.marcuscenter.org.n

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