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‘The Color Purple’ astounding at the Mercury

Adrienne Walker stars as Shug (left) TrishJeffrey stars as Celie 'The Color Purple' Mercury Theater.

Adrienne Walker stars as Shug (left) and Trisha Jeffrey stars as Celie in "The Color Purple" at the Mercury Theater.

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When: Through Oct. 27

Where: Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport

Tickets: $22-$59

Info: (773) 325-1700;

Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

Updated: August 28, 2013 12:00PM

With its intimate yet grand-scale production of “The Color Purple,” the Mercury Theater has not only hit its stride as a presenter of first-rate professional musical theater in Chicago, but exceeded all expectations. Even those familiar with the 2005 Broadway original and its subsequent tours might well find themselves admitting that this edition is not only every bit as good, but in some ways even better. And of course it has what the Stephen Spielberg movie lacked — a lustrous score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray that runs the gamut from honkytonk jazz and roof-raising gospel to sultry blues, rousing swing and Broadway-style anthems.

With a book by Marsha Norman based on the 1982 Alice Walker novel, the musical follows the tragic yet ultimately triumphant story of Celie, a black woman who we first meet at age 14, when she is living in the Deep South, and who we follow over a period of four decades as she somehow manages to turn years of abuse and pain into a life of forgiveness and love.

Celie’s oppressors are men — both her father and her husband — who use and abuse her and repeatedly remind her she is “poor, black, ugly and a woman.” Her saviors are women: Her beloved younger sister, Nettie, a model of devotion; her stepson’s take-no-guff wife, Sofia, a beacon of rebellion; and her husband’s lifelong flame, the sexy singer, Shug Avery, who teaches her to begin to love herself. Time, too, helps bring about change. Age is the great mellower here.

Superbly directed by L. Walter Stearns, with galvanic choreography by Brenda Didier and glorious musical direction by Eugene Dizon (plus an offstage band of eight led by Oliver Townsend that sounds like an orchestra), this impressive show flies on the talents of its large, ideally chosen cast whose clarion voices are paired with rich and honest characterizations.

Trisha Jeffrey, a petite actress with Broadway credits, brings a powerhouse voice to Celie, along with the ability to make a marvelous transition from enduring victim to self-possessed woman whose essential goodness is never detroyed. Jasondra Johnson is the larger-than-life Sofia, who dominates her men, if not the realities of racism. Adrienne Walker is wonderfully sensual, real and self-involved as Shug, the femme fatale. And the hilariously gossipy “chorus” (Carrie Louise Abernathy, Sydney Charles and Brittany L. Bradshaw) often steals the show. Crystal Corinne Wood as Nettie, Ninah Snipes as Squeak and Donica Lynn as the Church Soloist all add great zest, with Keithon Gipson’s nasty Mister aptly cold and Evan Tyrone Martin’s Harpo comically in thrall to Sofia.

Applause, too, for Frances Maggio’s costumes, each a character in itself, and for Bob Knuth’s movable clapboard set. Bravo, all.

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