Richard Cook has been down this road before. In 2012, Cook took a deep breath and assembled Park Square Theatre’s largest-ever production. “Ragtime” had a cast of 35, a seven-piece orchestra and a budget of $250,000.
The gamble paid off artistically (strong reviews and great attendance) and financially (“we lost less than we thought we would,” Cook said).
“The Color Purple,” which opens Friday in its regional premiere at the St. Paul theater, again tests Park Square’s bank account, its commitment to diverse programming and raising opportunities for performers of color.
“With ‘Ragtime’ we woke up some people as to what Park Square could do,” Cook said. “With this one, I think we show what Park Square can be.”
Cook has assembled an A list of Twin Cities talent — both on stage and in the production end. Aimee K. Bryant will play the lead character of Celie, Regina Marie Williams portrays Shug Avery and Thomasina Petrus is Sofia. The cast includes Dennis Spears, T. Mychael Rambo, Jamecia Bennett, Ginger Commodore, Kasono Mwanza and Shirley Marie Graham.
That list leaves out a half-dozen other singers and actors who have piled up credits around town. In total, “The Color Purple” will employ perhaps more artists of color than any other Twin Cities theatrical production this season.
The musical is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel about Celie, a woman who suffers a long string of oppression and abuse until she finds rescue and rehabilitation through her relationship with a nightclub singer, Shug Avery. Steven Spielberg made a 1985 film starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, with Oprah Winfrey achieving an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Sofia, a fierce friend of Celie’s.
“It’s a story of this woman who was abused from childhood and how she manages to rise above all that,” said Lewis Whitlock, who is directing and choreographing the Park Square production.
Finding the right leader
As Cook sought advice on who might be best to direct the show, Whitlock’s name kept coming up.
Whitlock began as a dancer in the early 1960s, toured with “The Wiz,” played Broadway in the short-lived “Zoot Suit” and danced with Tony winner George Faison’s Universal Dance Experience.
In the Twin Cities, he danced in Chanhassen’s inaugural show in 1968, choreographed and danced with Zenon, directed at the Cricket and staged pops concerts for the Minnesota Orchestra. And apropos to “Color Purple,” Whitlock did an artist residency that included Petrus when she was a student at North High School.
“This play is a theatricalization of what I knew about the strength of African-American women,” Whitlock said. “All the women in my family have that strength, so approaching these characters wasn’t unusual for me.”
His first instinct for music director was the Rev. Carl Walker, founder of Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul. They auditioned talent in neighborhood churches, looking for “singers who can act — singers first,” Whitlock said. “Then I needed strong personalities.”
When Walker had to step away from the project for family reasons, Gary Hines stepped in.
Hines is no stranger to musical theater with his Sounds of Blackness, a group that performs concerts and theatrical work. He also brought Andrew Bourgoin to drive the band and Denise Prosek to rearrange the music.
“To successfully whittle it down from 17 pieces [as written for Broadway] to six and not miss anything, that’s a herculean task.,” Hines said of Prosek’s work.
Hines said the songs come from all styles in the family of African-American music.
“Work songs, field hollers, jazz, gospel, blues,” he said. “Like any family, they have more in common than differences.”
A Winfrey-led group tested the show at the Alliance in Atlanta and opened it on Broadway during Christmas season in 2005 to middling critical response. It ran for a little more than two years and recouped its $11 million investment, indicating word of mouth was stronger than critics’ opinions. A tour visited the Ordway in 2009.
Recent productions have addressed a criticism of the Broadway show, that it was bloated and tried to dance too fast through too much history. In 2013, a Chicago production at the 290-seat Mercury Theater cut the cast in half, to 16. That same year in London, director John Doyle not only trimmed the cast but cut 30 minutes from the 2½-hour show. The tighter focus on Celie apparently impressed Winfrey, whose group wants to return to Broadway with Doyle’s show, reportedly with Jennifer Hudson as Shug.
Park Square has 19 cast members — a little more than half the size of “Ragtime” — and will use the original script and score from Broadway and subsequent tours.
Fruitful time era
“Color Purple” appealed to Cook because to his mind, it had some features of “Ragtime.” Both are wholly American stories from the early 1900s, set in different cultures but dealing with some of the same issues: race, survival, honesty, acceptance. Both began with lush Broadway productions and found more meaning through telescoping the story.
But the day-to-day circumstances of the characters couldn’t be more different. The immigrant Lower East Side of Manhattan would seem foreign to blacks in the rural South at that time. “Color Purple” is more personal, less political. Celie, Shug and Sofia consume life for 40 years. These farming women survived well on crops and livestock so they didn’t go hungry, but they also had no power. “No one asked those women whether they wanted World War I,” Whitlock said, “They had no control over the economy.”
Cook sees the similarities between the two shows in terms of Park Square’s mission.
“They both advance our commitment to be more honestly consistent and diverse in our storytelling,” he said. “I’m expecting the production to be exciting enough and the buzz strong enough that there will be a reassessment of what we can do.”