Jaden Dominique as Celie and DeQuina Moore as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple.” Photos by Jared Morneau Photography

With an award-winning novel by Alice Walker and a highly praised movie by Steven Spielberg preceding it, the musical version of “The Color Purple” has always had big shoes to fill.

The Maine State Music Theatre has boldly opened a production of the 2005 musical that succeeds in doing just that. Billed as its “most inspirational show of the summer season,” this spirited and spiritual production is all that it should be.

Like the book and movie, the E. Faye Butler-directed musical packs a whole lot of story, along with a wealth of highly entertaining song and dance numbers, into a just-over-two-hour run time at the venerable Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick.

Taking place in early 20th century Georgia, the setting encompasses aging former slaves, their children and grandchildren who struggle with poverty and their marginal status in a racially divided world where various forms of cruelty, exploitation and despair work against any hope for a better future ahead.

Young Celie, a downtrodden victim of sexual and domestic abuse, tries hard to remember her youthful, good times spent with her smart sister Nettie. But her placement with a hard man called Mister gradually eats away at her pride. Church and personal friends, notably a feisty Sofia, keep her spirits up a bit as does the flamboyant entertainer Shug Avery, with whom she falls in love.

In the book for the musical by Marsha Norman, all this leads Celie to gradually develop a strong identity. She can no longer tolerate the oppression coming from within the male-dominated African American community and from the nearby threats of beatings and lynchings in the larger world. It is an understatement when Celie says that “things hard here.”


Nyla Watson (Doris), Tarra Conner Jones (Jarene) and La’Nette Wallace (Darlene) in “The Color Purple.”

The songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray range from gospel and blues to jazz, African and mainstream Broadway styles (“Shug’s Too Beautiful for Words” is a standout). Audience members do have to recalibrate theirs ears occasionally, though, when the overall rural, folksy feel of the show switches into big-time vocal anthem mode.

Jaden Dominique’s Celie is sympathetic (“Somebody Gonna Love You”) to the point that the audience openly rooted for her eventual fighting back (“I’m Here”) at the performance under review. Dominique’s strengthening voice boldly reflected Celie’s emergence, and by the close of the show, it became evident how much the actress, like her character, held back in earlier scenes.

Dominique’s duets with Tavia Rivée, as sister Nettie, are touching (“Huckleberry Pie”) while with the brassy but knowing Shug, played by DeQuina Moore, a poignance (“What About Love”) moves the action toward Shug’s poetic moment (“The Color Purple”).

Maiesha McQueen is a take-no-prisoners Sofia (“Hell No!”), an inspiration to Celie. The cruel Mister, played by Kelvin Roston, Jr., holds firm (“Big Dog”) until the amassed female forces lead him and his son Harpo, played by Lawrence Flowers (“Any Little Thing”), in another direction (“Mister’s Song”).

Dori Waymer (Squeak), Lawrence Flowers (Harpo) and the cast of “The Color Purple” at Maine State Music Theatre.

Dance interludes by Church Ladies, Field Hands and others (choreography by Flo Walker-Harris) include popular period forms and a bit of African expressiveness. The live music, directed by Jarred Lee, backs the performers in Botarri and Case costume designs. The sets, by Charles S Kading with projections by Ryan Swift Joyner, place the players in a hardscrabble rural enclave where dreams, however improbable, can still come true.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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