At last Saturday night’s performance of The Color Purple, I witnessed a phenomenon that, as far as I can remember, is unparalleled in my 25 years of covering the Charlotte theater scene. Her name is Keston Steele, and the electricity she created at Halton Theatre was unprecedented. Playing Celie in the Northwest School of the Arts production, Steele sparked a robust standing ovation during the musical based on Alice Walker’s beloved novel.
The NWSA junior scorched her big Act 2 showcase, “What About Love?” signaling Celie’s full emotional and personal flowering — literally stopping the show as the crowd sprang collectively to its feet. My wife Sue, who knows better than to talk to me during a show, tossed the rules aside. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked.
At that moment, I had multiple reasons to shake my head.
But Steele was not the only marvel of this lavish high school production. Just before the breakout solo, Phillip Johnson and Brianna Cleggett had hooked up on the wickedly suggestive Harpo-Sofia duet, “Is There Anything I Can Do for You?” that was a tough act to follow. Just before that, the joyous “In Miss Celie’s Pants” was one of multiple ensembles choreographed by Eddie Mabry that could have credibly pressed the Standing O button.
With sets by Chip Davis (generously helped by the original Broadway production), costumes by Barbara Wesselmen, and a 15-member orchestra directed by Mark Johnson, there was no appreciable falloff in the look and sound that NWSA produced compared to the CPCC musicals that take over the Halton during the summer. Danielle Hopkins sashayed around the stage with a precocious arrogance as the notorious Shug Avery, yet she delivered a glowing affirmation to the show’s title song. And from an acting standpoint, Mekhai Lee as Mister was at least as impressive as Steele in vividly sketching a wide and majestic character arc.
Director Corey Mitchell can be doubly proud of this Purple. It was just the second school production licensed in the U.S., and thanks to the dedication of everyone involved, NWSA justified the honor. My jaw started dropping from the moment I saw the huge handwritten scrim that filled the stage before it lifted to begin the show. The tree where we first encounter Celie and her sister Nettie had a similar Broadway flavor.
No, there was nothing at all “Junior” about this high school musical. It had Broadway aspirations, and it hit a home run.