By Lynn Venhaus

In its Muny premier, “The Color Purple” is a momentous experience — one that cannot be missed for its historic and landmark significance, but also because it’s one of the finest ever ensembles in its 104 seasons.

The cast takes us on an unforgettable emotional journey, and their glorious harmonies soar into the summer night.

Delivering a story of uncommon courage and grace in a harrowing account of deeply rooted cruelty and oppression, the core group of female principals makes us feel their sorrows, love, pain, and indomitable spirit.

To paraphrase Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, sisters are doing it for themselves (referencing a 1985 Eurythmics female empowerment song). And what a sisterhood it is!

In 1909, Celie is a humble, hard-working 14-year-old poor black girl living in rural Georgia, who has delivered two babies whose father is her father, and Pa (Duane Martin Foster) has taken them away.

Several years later, he makes a deal to give Celie to Albert “Mister” Johnson, an emotionally and physically abusive widower and farmer, to care for his unruly children and serve him and his family.

She spared her sister, Nettie, so that she could follow her dream of being a teacher. Unbeknownst to Celie for a long time, the compassionate Nettie winds up with a missionary family in Africa, and is eventually tracked down by Shug Avery, another important influence in Celie’s life.

Celie has gone from one house of horrors to another. This is unsettling, of course, but her unwavering faith sees her through these tough times, as do the people who raise her up. She has always found solace with her sister and in church, and as time passes, it is the community that relies on her that pays back her kindness.

While taking care of Mister’s home, the nurturing Celie meets the glamorous, worldly, and determined nightclub chanteuse Shug Avery. They eventually share a romantic relationship and deep bond despite the singer having an on-again, off-again affair with Mister and a marriage to Grady.

One of Mister’s grown children, Harpo, marries Sofia, and she is a strong-willed free spirit, known for her independence and speaking her mind, with her phrase: “Hell, no!” even a song title. She cannot be ‘tamed,’ but she loves Harpo. Sofia’s stance will bring her serious harm.

Over the course of several decades, what the women learn, how they grow and overcome obstacles will tug at our hearts, so that the mercy shown in the second act leads to triumph– and for the men too.

Marsha Norman wrote this tough adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning touchstone novel, a National Book Award winner in 1982, which told Celie’s story through letters she wrote to her sister and children.

Sisters Nettie and Celie “Our Prayer.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

For director Steven Spielberg, Menno Meyjes adapted the book into a 1985 movie that garnered 11 Academy Award nominations (but famously did not win any). A new movie based on the musical is set for a December 2023 release.

The heart and soul of any version is Celie, and it’s no fluke that both actresses who played Celie on Broadway — LaChanze in the original 2005 production and Cynthia Erivo in the 2016 revival — won Tony Awards (Director John Doyle’s re-imagining also won the Tony Award for Best Revival).

In this powerhouse role, Anastacia McCleskey is transcendent, bringing out the dignity, heartbreak, and virtues of a true survivor of overwhelming trauma. This tour de force performance is deeply felt and delivered with remarkable strength and skill.

Her eyes glistening with tears, McCleskey became a bona fide star in her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” in which she expresses self-love and perseverance, and left us in awe. The thunderous ovation that followed was one of the longest in memory. Goosebump moments, indeed.

When she leads the cast in the finale, a fervent reprise of “The Color Purple,” it’s impossible for the audience to not have been affected by this sublime show.

Yes, it’s gut-wrenching, but it’s also about healing, resilience, and the mighty power of love. Throughout our history, we have learned that we should never forget what’s happened before, those teachable moments that make us better people.

The score includes gospel, jazz, ragtime, blues, and African beats, with songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray that bring out the purpose, yearnings and period of these early 20th century lives.

“Mysterious Ways” number. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The cast is stellar from leads to brief parts, evident from the Sunday church services depicted in “Mysterious Ways,” with Omega Jones belting out praise as the preacher and Alexis J. Rosten, Shantel Cribbs and Melanie Loren instant crowd-pleasers as the supremely talented trio of church ladies Doris, Darlene, and Jarene.

You will quickly discover what a joyful noise this ensemble will make, their strong vocals providing a sense of faith, hope and charity that church communities share.

Nasia Thomas, who stood out in last year’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” is impressive as Celie’s beloved sister Nettie. You can feel a palpable bond between them, as if they were real sisters. Their duets are beautiful, especially the touching “Our Prayer.”

In the showy role as the irrepressible Shug, singer Tracee Beazer sashays across the stage with ultra-confidence. She leads the big splashy number “Push Da Button” but it’s her poignant ballads, “Too Beautiful for Words” and “The Color Purple,” that showcase her vocal strengths, as well as the exquisite “What About Love?”, a tender duet with Celie.

Nicole Michelle Haskins as Sofia and Gilbert Domally as Harpo reprise their roles from the acclaimed 2019 Drury Lane Theatre production in Chicago and endear as a dynamic couple — and as individuals. They have a fun, playful duet “Any Little Thing.”

Gilbert Domally, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Evan Tyrone Martin, Anastacia McCleskey. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

As the villain Mister, Evan Tyrone Martin inspires a gamut of emotions as the heartless husband perpetuating a long cycle of suffering. After he’s cursed and lost everything, “The Mister Song” begins his redemption.

Fine in supporting roles are Erica Durham as the colorful Squeak, Sean Walton as flashy Grady, and Jos N. Banks as lively Buster. Muny favorite Kennedy Holmes portrays Olivia and Rodney Thompson is Adam, Celie’s children.

The staging on a simple slab with different levels depicting various locales is a smart move by scenic designer Arnel Sanciano, which narrows our focus to the human interaction. Other accoutrements, such as Harpo’s sign for his juke joint and fields of purple flowers, are deftly handled on the LED screen by video designer Paul Deziel.

The creative team is new to the Muny but not the material. Director Lili-Anne Brown, music director Jermaine Hill and choreographer Breon Arzell were responsible for the Drury Lane Theatre production in fall 2019 that received seven Joseph Jefferson Awards nominations and won two — for directing and supporting role (Haskins).

Their collaboration has transferred well to the large outdoor stage. Every part of this exercise is told with attentiveness and passion.

The trio’s vision is brought vividly to life by the top-tier ensemble and their team, including outstanding craftsmanship by lighting designer Heather Gilbert and sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge. Production stage manager Jhanae Bonnick keeps everything at a brisk pace.

“Miss Celie’s Pants.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The costumes are a panoply of 40 years of style, with costume designer Samantha C. Jones dressing a church-going community in their Sunday best, what they wear to work and play in a Southern town, and how they dress up for a juke joint. Wig designer is Kelly Jordan.

With Celie designing pants in the second act, a striking array of comfortable yet stylish outfits are on display. That celebration number “Miss Celie’s Pants” marks such a turning point in the story and is one big smile.

If you believe, as I do, that if you spread light and love in the world, and are a good person, then the universe responds in kind. That is ultimately why Celie’s story resonates. Yes, she endured hell on earth, but she never gave up her belief in goodness, and finally realized her worth as a human being.

Purple symbolizes strength, transformation, power, wisdom and bravery, and all meanings can be applied here.

What an inspiration Alice Walker’s book was to the world 40 years ago, and continues to be, and what a distinguished accomplishment this show is for The Muny and St. Louis.

Nasia Thomas, Anastacia McCleskey, Rodney Thompson, Kennedy Holmes. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

The Muny presents the musical “The Color Purple” Aug. 3-9 at 8:15 p.m. nightly on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information or tickets, visit www.muny.org.

Church Ladies. Photo by Phillip Hamer.

By Lynn Venhaus

This re-imagining of the classic Broadway musical is magnificent. “West Side Story” is brimming with vitality and breathtaking songs.

With so many expectations, director Steven Spielberg has made smart choices – honoring the original yet finessed it for a new generation.

Star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria meet, and they are connected with two rival gangs in a modern slant on “Romeo and Juliet” – only it’s the mean streets of Manhattan in an unfriendly urban jungle, where the Jets and the Sharks each want to rule the turf. Adapted by Arthur Laurents into the 1957 stage musical, which became a smash hit movie in 1961, earning 11 Academy Awards, and features music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Renowned playwright Tony Kushner’s grittier script effectively expanded the backstories, made the relationships more intimate and urgent. Spielberg’s go-to Janusz Kaminski’s vintage-hued cinematography pops – the film’s look and sound stands out.

The musical numbers have been staged with great care and are seamlessly integrated into the story. The work of choreographer Justin Peck, artistic director of New York City Ballet, is exquisite. It would be hard to top visionary Jerome Robbins, who not only conceived the 1957 musical but also directed and choreographed it, but what Peck achieves with lean, muscular and lithe dancers in the dynamic “Dance at the Gym” and an epic bold, swirling, vibrant “America” that spills out into the streets like an impromptu carnival is stunning.

There isn’t a better musical score – “Tonight,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Something’s Coming,” “The Jet Song,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and more. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s music is timeless –orchestrations are lush while the young vocalists deliver the Stephen Sondheim lyrics with depth and understanding.

An impressive mix of Broadway and Hollywood talent elevates it – especially with youthful energy and soaring vocal chops. Tony winner David Alvarez (“Billy Elliot”) and Mike Faist (Connor Murphy in original Broadway cast of “Dear Evan Hansen”) are electric as Bernardo and Riff. Ariana deBose is ablaze as Anita while newcomer Rachel Zegler is something special as Maria. The others are so dazzling that Ansel Elgort is the weakest link as a blander Tony, but he can sing and dance.

Best of all is Rita Moreno in a new role as Doc’s wife. If she is nominated (and she should), it won’t be as a sentimental career nod — it will be because she is that good. After all, she is an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and to this day, is the only Latino to win an Oscar, for playing Anita in “West Side Story.”

Character actors Corey Stoll and Brian D’Arcy James play Lt. Shrank and Officer Krupke, the old-guard police guys trying to keep peace.

The modern retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” remains relevant and should excite a new audience like the 1961 movie did in its day.

While some didn’t think the movie should be messed with, it was 60 years ago, with a predominantly white cast and leads whose singing voices were dubbed, so it wasn’t perfect, and the updates are effective in bringing it into the 21st century – while keeping the time references the same.

“West Side Story” is an extremely challenging musical, and they manage to pull it off with style and grace. It deserves an audience – to be seen on a big screen in all its full technicolor glory — and I hope it lives on as a remarkable example of new approaches to a beloved classic that work.

“West Side Story” is a 2021 musical directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, Arianna Debose, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, Brian D’Arcy and Rita Moreno. It is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking, and it’s run time is 2 hours, 36 minutes. In theaters Dec. 10. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By Lynn Venhaus
EGOT winner Rita Moreno, who will turn 90 on Dec. 11, traveled from Puerto Rico to America with her mother when she was 5 years old. She would go on to a legendary career as an actress, singer and dancer that has spanned 70 years.

A candid documentary, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” is a loving and illuminating look at her life and struggles.

Just when you think this will be a fawning showbiz portrait, Moreno matter-of-factly points out the bumps in the road in a difficult journey to stardom. She shares intimate details about the racism and sexism she endured on Broadway and in Hollywood, reveals jaw-dropping abuse and a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando.

Her resilience, and talent, would help her triumph over adversity – but what a remarkable, strong woman. Fiesty and fearless now, the former Rosita Dolores Alverio is still going strong. She is an executive producer on Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” to be released this December, and was on the rebooted sitcom “One Day at a Time” from 2017 to 2020.

 Often cast as a stereotypical ethnic minority early in her career, she discusses her efforts to break barriers, fight for representation and forge a path for other artists.

Winning the Oscar in 1962

The talking heads include George Chakiris, fellow Oscar winner for “West Side Story” (1961) as Bernardo to her Anita; Morgan Freeman, who appeared with her on PBS’ “The Electric Company,” for which she won a Grammy; and Latino performers who consider her a role model: Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado. Karen Olivo and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is one of the executive producers on the documentary.

The spry Moreno, a widow and mother of one daughter, is a marvel of movement. An activist ready to take to the streets, she chronicles her early involvement in civil rights and how she continues to fight injustice.

The career achievements are vast – including two Emmys, for ‘The Rockford Files” and “The Muppet Show,” and a Tony for “The Ritz” in 1975. The director has inserted copious amounts of archival footage, and Moreno’s body of work is impressive.

For 89 minutes, this fascinating and inspiring documentary shows how the gutsy Moreno survived – and thrived – in a cutthroat business. I’m eager to see the next chapter.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is a 2021 documentary directed by Mariem Perez Riera.
It is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some strong language including a sexual reference, and suggestive material, and has a run-time of 1 hour, 30 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A

Available in local theatres June 18
and at the Tribeca Film Festival June 9-20, with virtual screenings at Tribeca at Home through June 23.

On this President’s Day, let’s look back at the films centered around an American President, and what actors were best at portraying the Commander-in-Chief – be it fact or fiction. Here are some of my favorite dramas, comedies and even romances that included the most powerful leader of the free world. We are only listing theatrical films and the HBO film adaptation of “All the Way.”

If we included television, we’d have a wider pool, and that’s for another list. What are your favorites that spotlight our U.S. leader?

1. Lincoln (2012) — Daniel Day-Lewis not only delivers the best presidential portrayal ever on screen, but also one of the best male performances of all-time. Day-Lewis won his third Oscar, and it was never in doubt. Just a remarkable portrayal of Abe as a man struggling to hold the country together and lead them to higher ground. Director Steven Spielberg brought a humanity to the story rarely seen in historical portraits.

Kevin Kline in “Dave”

2. Dave (1993) — Kevin Kline is Dave Kovic, who is hired to impersonate the commander-in-chief when President Bill Mitchell suffers a stroke during an illicit affair.

A comedic take on an everyman winning over government wonks with his common sense, solidly directed by Ivan Reitman. Sigourney Weaver is a formidable First Lady.

Bruce Greenwood as “Thirteen Days”

3. Thirteen Days (2000) – President John F. Kennedy saved the day when we were on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a historical look back at this tense political time in 1962, through the perspective of White House assistant Kenneth P. O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), with Bruce Greenwood strong as JFK.

Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd in “The American President”

4. The American President (1995) – This is Aaron Sorkin’s idealism front and center before “The West Wing.”

Michael Douglas shines as a widowed president running for re-election who starts a romance with an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening, but the political fallout affects their relationship.

Savvy script, smart casting (especially Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox as chief of staff and press secretary) make this Rob Reiner-helmed comedy-drama a memorable one.

Harrison Ford in “Air Force One”

5. Air Force One (1997) – Harrison Ford as kick-butt President James Marshall. Love it! The fit commander-in-chief is a Vietnam vet in this political action-thriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen. A group of terrorists hijack the president’s plane and threaten the U.S. but our hero won’t let that happen on his watch. Glenn Close is the vice president and Gary Oldman the Russian bad guy, but it is Ford, in all his star power, as the take-charge head of state that made this movie one of the most successful of the ‘90s.

Anthony Hopkins as “Nixon”

6. Nixon (1995) – Anthony Hopkins embodied the beleaguered president during his tumultuous White House years, with Joan Allen riveting as his long-suffering wife Pat. Oliver Stone directed, so the agenda is clear.

Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”

7. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Frank Langella was Oscar-nominated as the disgraced Nixon seeking redemption in his four-part interviews with Britain’s David Frost in 1977. Ron Howard sharply directed the adaptation of Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, with whip-smart movie script by the playwright.

8. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) – Director John Ford teamed up with actor Henry Fonda for this look at honest Abe during his early years. Fonda embodies the heroic ideals of the lawyer and statesman who would become the 16th president of the United States.

Brian Cranston as LBJ

9. All the Way (2016) — Bryan Cranston won a well-deserved Tony Award for his masterful portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson during the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 2014 play by Robert Schenkkan.

This is the Emmy-nominated HBO adaptation, written by the playwright and directed by Jay Roach. Cranston is again uncanny as political animal LBJ, and the all-star cast includes Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover, Bradley Whitford as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson.

Jeff Bridges as the President and Christian Slater as a reporter in “The Contender”

10. The Contender (2000) — The wonderful Jeff Bridges is a likeable two-term Democratic President, Jackson Evans, who decides to break the glass ceiling and appoint a woman Vice-President after the current one dies.

However, his nominee, Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) gets entangled in vicious hearings with a bullseye on her back. This political thriller is written and directed by Rod Lurie, a former newspaper guy. Both Bridges and Allen were nominated for Oscars.

Emma Thompson and John Travolta as thinly veiled Hillary and Bill Clinton in “Primary Colors”

11. Primary Colors (1998) – John Travolta was at the top of his game portraying Jack Stanton, a charismatic Southern governor running for president. Recognize anyone? Based on the 1996  “Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics” by Newsweek’s Joe Klein, this fictionalized account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign had a crackerjack supporting cast (Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oscar nominee Kathy Bates), sharply directed by Mike Nichols and written by his former comedy partner Elaine May.

Tiki Sumpter and Parker Sawyer in “Southside with You”

12. Southside with You (2016) – A ‘what if’ movie that works, quirks and all, with its imagining of what Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama’s first date was like back when they were lawyers in Chicago. Written and directed by Richard Tanner, this little charmer comes alive when the nervous future two-term president shows off his oratory skills at a community meeting. Parker Sawyer is a genuinely believable Obama but Tika Sumpter really shines as the life force who would become First Lady Michelle Obama.

Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon in “Elvis and Nixon”

14. Elvis and Nixon (2016) – You may think this is preposterous, but this really did happen. And it’s one goofy movie. On Dec. 21, 1970, rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley went to the White House for a meeting with President Richard Nixon – and that historical photograph is the most requested one at the National Archives. Talk about offbeat casting — Michael Shannon is a different kind of Elvis while Kevin Spacey impersonates Nixon.

16. Independence Day (1996) – Bill Pullman is memorable President Thomas J. Whitmore facing an alien invasion, and his rallyng-all-Americans speech is one of the best-known in films.
Here is the transcript of that great speech:

President Whitmore:
Good morning. Good morning. In less than an hour aircrafts from here will join others from around the world and you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind.
Mankind, that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the 4th of July and you will once again be fighting for our freedom not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution but from annihilation.

We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist, and should we win today the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American President holiday but is the day when the world declared in one voice,

“We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

This epic sci-fi disaster film made $817.4 million and won the Oscar for Best VIsual Effects.

17. Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” (2013) and 18. “White House Down” (2013) These aren’t films of particularly lasting impact but the casting of the presidents is genius.

In “The Butler,” Forest Whitaker plays a White House employee who serves multiple presidents  – and this casting is certainly eyebrow-raising:

Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Shreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and the most brilliant turn by Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (with Jane Fonda as Nancy!).

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx is the kick-ass president in the action thriller “White House Down,” which came out at the same time as the inferior “Olympus Has Fallen,” all about a terrorist group creating chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s terrific and a good match-up with Channing Tatum as a heroic Secret Serviceman.

Honorable Mentions: Oscar nominee Sam Rockwell is pitch-perfect as George W. Bush in “Vice” (2018), but he’s barely a supporting character. In Natalie Portman’s tour de force “Jackie,” Caspar Phillipson and John Carroll Lynch are effective portraying John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.