YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Youngstown Playhouse always begins its season with a high-impact musical. This year is no different.
After being forced to take a year off because of the pandemic, the theater is going next-level for its opener. It will return to live performance with the regional premiere of “The Color Purple,” which will be staged at spacious Powers Auditorium.
Trevail Maurice directs the show. He was at the helm of the Playhouse’s blockbuster production of “Dreamgirls” in 2019.
With a cast of 22 and an eight-piece orchestra composed of members of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, “Purple” will be staged six times, Sept. 24 to 26 and Oct. 1 to 3.
Originally, The Playhouse moved the production to the 2,500-seat Powers when pandemic regulations limited capacity to 25%. In the 400-seat Playhouse, that limitation wouldn’t have been economically feasible.
When the capacity limits were lifted in June, however, the theater decided to remain at Powers.
Director Maurice says there are challenges to rehearsing a show as large as “Purple” in one building and then moving it to another for performances.
“It’s a bus and truck show, basically, like a tour,” he says. “It’s been difficult because we haven’t had the time. The DeYor has other scheduled events. And that’s been the biggest hassle. We have to make sure it’s ready [at the Playhouse], as far as logistics, sound and light.”
The Youngstown Symphony Orchestra has a concert Sept. 19 at Powers Auditorium. So Maurice and his cast and crew cannot get on that stage until Sept. 20 – which leaves him just three days to mount the show.
Maurice says the DeYor staff has been “gracious to us” to make the transition as easy as possible.
The Playhouse originally planned to stage “The Color Purple” in the spring of 2020. Then it pushed the show to May of 2021. Neither happened because of the pandemic. Those delays posed another complication to the production, Maurice says.
After the success of “Dreamgirls,” the director found himself fielding many offers for theater work.
Maurice and Playhouse artistic director Joshua Green both auditioned for the touring production of “The Color Purple” while Green was directing “Dreamgirls.” Neither was cast but Maurice says he’s pleased and honored to be able to now direct the landmark musical.
“Purple” has a vigorous, spiritual nature, that is keys to its essence of triumph.
“It deals with God and religion, gender roles, domestic violence …
It’s triggering but in a way that is soothing, where [audiences] can walk out of the theater and face their own trials.”
Playhouse artistic director Green says the magnitude of the show is part of an intentional effort by the Playhouse to return to live theater with power.
“We’re doing it and we’re doing it strong,” he says. “We had loyal supporters who wrote to the theater [during the time it was dark], saying they hope we survive. We came back with a full season. We’re doing five shows in four months.”
As for “The Color Purple,” Green says it will stick with audiences. “The journey you go on in two-ish hours is one you will not regret,” he says.
“The Color Purple” tells the story of Celie, a young Black woman who triumphs over a lifetime of oppression though a personal awakening of love, hope and joy.
Mikayla Moore, a local stage veteran who was a member of The Youngstown Connection while in high school, plays Celie.
The cast also includes James Major Burns, who had a key role in “Dreamgirls,” as the evil Mister; Tayja Sims (Nettie); Arielle T. Green (Shug Avery); Nikita R. Jones (Sofia); Wayne Bonner III (Harpo); Garfield Washington Johnson II (Grady, Adams); and Diamond Ford (Squeak).
The staff includes Mazhorell Johnson as music director; Jacinda Madison, production manager; Anthony Madison, production stage manager; and Johnny Pecano, technical director.
“The Color Purple” has an exhilarating score that comprises jazz, ragtime, gospel and blues.
The stage play is adapted from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the 1985 film by Steven Spielberg, which starred Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.
The stage production opened on Broadway in 2005 and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was re-invented a decade later and won the 2016 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
A fresh movie adaptation is in the works, starring pop singer H.E.R. in the role of Squeak. It is slated for a 2023 release.
In casting the musical earlier this year, Maurice was concerned about the turnout he would get at auditions. His fears proved unfounded.
“We had 50 people audition, which is 10 more than we got for ‘Dreamgirls,’ ” he says. “That’s progress. I was excited about that.”
Age and skin color are issues in the storyline that had to be considered when casting. Because the movie came out more than three decades ago, the director knew an older generation would be more attached to it and would show up at auditions so he looked for actors with a youthful vibe.
Maurice says he chose not delve into “the narrative of colorism” in his production.
With the social and political turmoil of the past two years, not to mention the pandemic and the explosion of gun violence in Youngstown, Maurice says the timing couldn’t be better for the musical.
“If there was any story that should be told now, it is this story,” he says.
The director calls “Purple” a timeless tale of the human experience and the power of the human spirit.
“This story teaches us that true power doesn’t come from something outside of ourselves but instead, real power is found within ourselves.”
Maurice compares the transformation of lead character Celie to the making of a precious stone.
“Just like carbon has to be burned and pressed to become diamonds, we too must go through the gates of pain and suffering in order to discover the supernatural force within us that lets us know who we really are.”
While “Purple” represents the Playhouse’s’ first collaboration with the DeYor Performing Arts Centre, it won’t be the last.
Green says the goal is to join forces annually.
Representatives of the DeYor, which is managed by Stambaugh Auditorium, got the ball rolling when they approached the Playhouse about working together.
“It’s a partnership that we wanted,” Green says. “At the time we were at 25% of capacity. Shortly after I did all the paperwork to do the show at DeYor, the governor opened up Ohio. But we decided to stay there and build that relationship [with the venue].”
Green says the Playhouse is considering doing at least one show every year at Powers.
Pictured: Mikayla Moore and James Major Burns in a scene from The Youngstown Playhouse production of “The Color Purple.” (Photo by Richard Burley)