November 18, 2019

Winnipeg
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Agony and ecstasy

Epic but intimate musical plumbs emotional highs and lows

Winnipeg director Kimberly Rampersad sidesteps grandiosity and stages it all with a magical sense of intimacy, augmented by a minimal, almost skeletal set by Brian Perchaluk and dramatic yet subtle lighting by Hugh Conacher. (Ian Jackson photo)

Winnipeg director Kimberly Rampersad sidesteps grandiosity and stages it all with a magical sense of intimacy, augmented by a minimal, almost skeletal set by Brian Perchaluk and dramatic yet subtle lighting by Hugh Conacher. (Ian Jackson photo)

By any standard, this musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a huge show.

It is epic in its narrative scope: It takes place over three decades in the American Jim Crow South. It has a cast of 16 actors — accompanied by an eight-piece band — all singing in full voice, individually or in combination, in idioms encompassing gospel, jazz and blues.

Wisely, though, it is not presented like a big, bombastic Broadway musical. Massive undertaking that it is, Winnipeg director Kimberly Rampersad sidesteps grandiosity and stages it all with a magical sense of intimacy, augmented by a minimal, almost skeletal set by Brian Perchaluk and dramatic yet subtle lighting by Hugh Conacher.

The sheer beauty of the thing offsets its disturbing subject matter. It centres on the hard, hard life of Celie (Calgary actress Tara Jackson) whom we meet at the age of 14, pregnant with her second child, apparently impregnated by her own father.

Cumulatively and individually, this is a powerful cast, in more than just voice.(Ian Jackson photo)

Cumulatively and individually, this is a powerful cast, in more than just voice.(Ian Jackson photo)

Celie selflessly absorbs the abuse to protect her beloved younger sister, Nettie (Allison Edwards-Crewe). Celie is ultimately bartered by her father into marriage with Mister (Ryan Allen), another abusive tyrant who keeps Celie in a state of servitude, sexually, economically and all other ways. When Nettie runs away to escape Mister’s advances, she promises to send Celie letters; when they fail to arrive, Celie assumes her sister has died.

Celie is told more than once she is worthless because she is black, a woman and "ugly." Yet her worth asserts itself again and again as she finds herself playing a pivotal role in her community, especially with her stepson Harpo (Andrew Broderick), Harpo’s indomitable wife Sofia (Janelle Cooper), and, most crucially, Shug Avery (Karen Burthwright).

Mister’s mistress, Shug is a free-spirited entertainer who is, in many ways, is Celie’s opposite: bold, outgoing and unapologetically self-indulgent. When Shug arrives in Mister’s home in wretched state, Celie nurses her back to health. In the process, a friendship blossoms.

As it turns out, opposites do attract.

If the subject matter is relentlessly downbeat, the show’s music — by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — offers up a riotous spectrum of feeling, from agony to ecstasy, expressed with more than one astonishing voice among the cast. These include a kind of Greek chorus of "Church ladies" (Masini McDermott, Maiko Munroe and Sarah Nairne) who leaven the oft-grim content with a droll, gospel-flavoured sass.

If the subject matter is relentlessly downbeat, the show’s music — by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — offers up a riotous spectrum of feeling, from agony to ecstasy, expressed with more than one astonishing voice among the cast, (Ian Jackson photo)

If the subject matter is relentlessly downbeat, the show’s music — by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — offers up a riotous spectrum of feeling, from agony to ecstasy, expressed with more than one astonishing voice among the cast, (Ian Jackson photo)

Cumulatively and individually, this is a powerful cast, in more than just voice. Much credit goes to Allen, whose "Mister" dominates much of the musical as a monstrous presence, and yet offers shadings that suggest he more than the sum of his cruelty.

In the respective roles of Shug and Sofia, Burthwright and Cooper charm firmly and forcefully, embodying the qualities that Celie will need to triumph over a life of adversity. In particular, Burthwright lives up to the kind of outsized personality celebrated in a song: Shug Avery Comin’ to Town.

But, to be sure, this is largely Tara Jackson’s show. Jackson is possessed of a glorious, soaring voice, that so entrances, one is barely aware of how deeply her performance has been setting you up for a climactic emotional wallop.

Bring the tissues.

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Read full biography

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