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Don’t miss ‘The Color Purple’; MN Book Awards finalists named

ALSO: “Witness: Let Freedom Ring” at Orchestra Hall; Internet Cat Video Festival moving to new Saints stadium; and more.

Regina Marie Williams as Shug Avery in Park Square’s “The Color Purple.”
Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

If we were allowed only three words about the Park Square’s current show “The Color Purple,” they would be “Don’t miss it.” Eleven performances remain, starting tonight, and you might want to snag your tickets now. Bursting with talent, passion and sincerity, this sprawling, ambitious musical grabs you by the throat, kicks you in the pants and takes you lovingly by the hand. It’s a history lesson, an emotional roller coaster, and a major achievement for Park Square, a theater whose mission is to enrich our community. Way to do that, Park Square.

Set in the first half of the 20th century, not that long after the Civil War and the end of slavery, based on Alice Walker’s book and Stephen Spielberg’s film (in which Oprah Winfrey made her acting debut), “The Color Purple” takes us from rural Georgia to Africa and back again. At its core is Celie (Aimee K. Bryant), whom we first meet as a shy, fearful 14-year-old pregnant with her second child by her rapist stepfather. Once the child is born, he gives Celie to an abusive common-law husband, Mister (T. Mychael Rambo). Meeting Mister’s lover, smoldering jazz singer Shug Avery (Regina Marie Williams), changes Celie’s life, as do encounters with the daring Sophia (Thomasina Petrus).

Over the musical’s two hours, Celie ages from 14 to 54. We change as she changes. Proof of the story’s power, we develop compassion, even affection for the play’s most loathsome character. Horrified one moment, uplifted the next, we see that everyone is wounded and damaged by history and circumstance, and that redemption is still within reach.

In two acts and 15 scenes, almost too much happens. There’s a lot of singing and dancing, costume changes and moving around of set pieces; happily, Seitu Jones’ scenic design is as limber as the dancers. The single scene in Africa is a show all by itself. The cast is large, with 19 actors, some playing multiple roles (a shout-out to Dennis Spears, who’s a preacher, an old man and an African chief). Backstage is a six-member live band. Time flies, lives change, children grow up, loved ones are lost and found.

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Don’t worry too much about making sense of it all; just stay with it. You’ll be rewarded with some of the finest, roof-raisingest singing you’ll hear anywhere this year (starting with Jamecia Bennett as the church soloist) and the sort of theater experience we wish could happen every time the house lights go down, except it would probably kill us. Keep in mind if you go that “The Color Purple” started as a big Broadway musical. That Park Square took the chance, brought it here and staged it in such a warm and intimate space makes it even more precious and astounding. Through Feb. 15


The finalists for this year’s Minnesota Book Awards have been announced, and the list includes several familiar names: Kate DiCamillo, William Alexander, Joyce Sidman, Marlon James, Kelly Barnhill, Larry Millett, Julie Klaussen, Jim Lenfestey, Lori Sturdevant. The prolific Larry Miller is up for prizes in two categories, Minnesota and Genre Fiction. Minnesota publishers Milkweed, Lerner, the Minnesota Historical Society Press, the University of Minnesota Press, North Star Press of St. Cloud, and Voyageur all have books in the running. View the complete list of categories and finalists here. Chosen by 24 judges from around the state, the winners will be announced at the 27th Annual Minnesota Book Awards Gala on Saturday, April 18, at the Union Depot in St. Paul. FMI and tickets ($50).

Children’s librarians, booksellers and authors – and everyone involved with Hamline’s low-residency Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program – have probably already read the list of this year’s American Library Association (ALA) Youth Media Awards, including the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott King prizes. We noticed former Minnesotan Mary GrandPré’s name on the list of Caldecott Honor Book winners for “The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art.” Most of us know her work from the Harry Potter books. A Carolrhoda title, “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” was a finalist for the William C. Morris Award. Carolrhoda is a division of Lerner. Minnesota author James A. Levine won an Alex Award for “Bingo’s Run.”

The Internet Cat Video Festival has gotten too big for Walker’s Open Field and will move this year to the new St. Paul Saints stadium in Lowertown. It won’t be free, but it won’t cost much. (We don’t know that for sure, but it seems like a safe bet; when #catvidfest played at the State Fair Grandstand in 2013, while the Walker was having its bricks done and the field wasn’t available, tickets were $10.) The date: Wednesday, Aug. 12. Tickets go on sale June 2.

The picks

Wednesday (Feb. 4) at SubText Books in St. Paul: Andy Steiner presents “How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People.” Practical wisdom on dealing with trauma and loss from the author and MinnPost writer. 6 p.m. Free.

Thursday at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis: Lakes Area Music Festival “Winter Masterpiece” Concert. Founded in 2009, the Lakes Area Music Festival is a classical music festival that takes place each summer in Brainerd. This is one of a series of concerts meant to spread the word and entice us northward in July and August for the 2015 season. Violinist Jonathan Magness (acting principal second violin of the Minnesota Orchestra), pianist Mary Jo Gothmann, and cellist Scott Lykins, festival director, will perform an intimate program of piano trios by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. 7 p.m. in the main lounge. Free. 

Opens Thursday at the Penumbra in St. Paul: “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” Crystal Fox of TV’s “The Haves and the Have Nots” stars as an African-American actress in Hollywood in the 1930s. Lou Bellamy directs the latest play by Lynn Nottage, whose “Ruined” won the Pulitzer Prize. FMI and tickets ($15-$40). Through March 1.

The weekend and a bit beyond

Saturday, Feb. 7 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis: Live at Orchestra Hall: “That’s Amore!” When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie … Sarah Hicks conducts the Minnesota Orchestra and guest vocalists in a salute to all things Italian: movie music by Ennio Morricone (“Cinema Paradiso”) and Nina Rota (“La Dolce Vita”), hits by Dean Martin (“That’s Amore”) and Caruso (“O Sole Mio”), and opera selections. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30-$70).

Sunday, Feb. 8, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis: Witness: Let Freedom Ring. Since 1991, VocalEssence’s annual concert has celebrated the contributions of African-Americans to the fine arts and our common cultural heritage. Over the years, concert artists have included James Earl Jones, Billy Taylor and Rita Dove and vocal ensembles Moore by Four, the Steeles and the Morehouse College Glee Club. New works are commissioned, rarely heard works are performed, and many students who might not otherwise have the chance to attend a concert at a major venue are in the audience. Celebrating 25 years of “Witness,” this year’s concert honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with music by Grammy winners Sounds of Blackness, the VocalEssence Chorus and the South High School Varsity Choir. The conductors are Philip Brunelle, Laurie Myers and Gary Hines (who’s also serving as music director of “The Color Purple” at Park Square). 4 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10-$40).

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Save the date

Sunday, March 8, at the Cathedral of St. Paul: Music for a Grand Space. The U’s choral ensembles present a program of songs spanning time and history. Conducted by Kathy Saltzman Romey and graduate student conductors. 2:30 p.m. Suggested donation $10. If you’ve never been to the Cathedral, this annual concert is the perfect excuse to go.