On December 1 there won’t be a dry eye in New York’s Broadway Theatre. That’s the day The Color Purple premieres and novelist Alice Walker’s heart-grabbing tale of love and forgiveness takes another evolutionary turn. The production features original music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray; choreography by Donald Byrd; and counts Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones among its producers.
Whereas Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation introduced Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, the musical already has a Tony Award–nominated stage veteran in the lead role—LaChanze. Born Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, the stunning beauty with the booming voice tried out her take on Celie during a preliminary run at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta last year before sold-out crowds. “This was such a hot ticket, there was no standing room,” says the Florida-born, Connecticut-raised singer. “It was amazing, and the applause was overwhelming.”
Color Purple fans should also prepare to be blown away when newcomer Elisabeth Withers-Mendes stumbles onto the stage as Shug Avery. Her rock- and soul-tinged vocals and can’t-stop-staring-at-her good looks helped her land her first Broadway gig. “I want to tap into the realness of the character and totally expose who she is: expressive, assertive, loving, caring, a little selfish,” says Withers-Mendes, who has worked with Quincy Jones and
Both actresses hope the enormous attention and expectations attached to the project won’t take away from the musical’s core message. “It’s about overcoming obstacles. In these times, we could really use something that’s uplifting,” LaChanze says. “The Color Purple is entertaining, but it also helps us get in touch with our humanity. It’s hard to describe how powerful this piece is—you just have to come and see it.”
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