Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks Fete the Bright and Dark Sides of Broadway’s …

11 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Color Purple’ musical on Broadway has a divine, moving spirit.

“With everything going on in society right now –- war, all the police brutality,” the ‘OITNB’ actress lamented. “The beauty of it is you see someone that was so strong, get beat up and then find themselves rejuvenated in their own strength again.” The Broadway return of The Color Purple looks starkly different than its debut a decade ago – in lieu of elaborate set pieces, Thursday’s opening night performance had the cast singing among handfuls of chairs on the Bernard B. Speaking of commodity musicals, “The Color Purple,” first seen on Broadway 10 years ago, is now being revived there in a brand-new production directed by John Doyle and imported from the Menier Chocolate Factory, one of London’s trendiest venues.

Turns out that Jennifer Hudson playing a Broadway diva on “Smash” was mere foreshadowing: Now she’s lording it up in a revival of “The Color Purple: The Musical.” But killing on TV is one thing — doing it live is another. At one point the nightclub singer Shug (Jennifer Hudson, making her Broadway debut) steps onstage in a periwinkle suit, but that’s the closest the production comes to flamboyance. It challenges us, and that’s why I wanted to do Broadway: to learn.” Hudson noted her biggest difficulty during the run is putting her own spin on the iconic role of the seductive Shug Avery. That’s too bad, since her character, Shug Avery, is meant to be a sexually magnetic songbird seducing men and women alike in the early 20th century South.

Co-star Danielle Brooks – who shot season four of Orange Is the New Black during the production’s previews – revels in her humorous “Hell No” and “Any Little Thing” numbers, but said the toughest part of playing Sofia is what’s not onstage. “You don’t see that fight, nor do you get all the beat up eye makeup and hair. Adapted from Alice Walker’s novel by book writer Marsha Norman and composer and lyricists Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, the story describes the trials and eventual emancipation of Celie, an African American girl who bears two children to her rapist stepfather (whom she believes to be her father) by the age of 14.

But Cynthia Erivo, who has come over from England to re-create the starring role of Celie, gives a performance big enough to play in the Grand Canyon: Her face is a deeply incised mask of suffering and sorrow, her acting is plain and true and her singing is gorgeous beyond belief. But the most inescapable thing about the musical is just how much horror is packed into its leading characters’ lives — and, eventually, just how much beauty.

It’s challenging for me right now.” For Erivo, Celie’s forced split from her sister Nettie can be too much to handle. “Sometimes I tip too far over and I can’t control what happens to my voice or my body or tears. While her pretty sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) is allowed to finish her schooling, Celie is married off to the cruel Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who tasks her with chores and the rearing of his unruly children. I have a sister, and when you’re in it and you’re telling the truth, it feels like it’s my sister is being taken away from me.” But such low moments make the high scenes soar, as the cast has repeatedly enjoyed tearful curtain calls and extended applause, even before performing the reprise.

The result — and it wouldn’t surprise me if the uninitiated feel this way as well — is a spiritually transcendent theatricalization of the tale that had me silently shouting “hallelujah” and “amen.” Doyle is aided by a glorious female cast. She plays Shug Avery, a worldly nightclub singer with a flapper finger wave and heart of a gold, and her appearance gives the story its first note of warmth. Celie isn’t pleased when Shug, Mister’s old flame, arrives for a visit, but Shug forms a relationship with Celie (erotic in the novel, more sororal here), making her feel loved. The musical primarily focuses on Celie’s journey from abuse to independence and self-esteem, an arduous trek that takes some four decades, from 1909 to 1949.

It’s hard to imagine that Erivo’s heart-stirring Broadway debut, a portrayal that derives enormous power from humility, won’t be recognized once award season arrives. The emotive content can tend toward the soppy and it’s Doyle’s astute choice to lessen its sentiment and to treat the characters and circumstances coolly and truthfully. She laments: “If God ever listened to a poor colored woman the world would be a different place.” Doyle’s pacing in the first act is so swift that there’s little time to breathe as misery seems to visit Celie without release — losing a sister, marrying a monster, endless work, beatings, abandoning her kids. She doesn’t eclipse the work of LaChanze, who won a Tony for her magnificent performance as Celie in the original Broadway production (and is currently lighting up “If/Then” at the Hollywood Pantages), but she stands beside her, a sister in greatness.

Every so often this backfires – the delicacy of the handling of the love between Celie and Shug obscures that relationship – but the simplicity and seriousness is often welcome. Hudson as the hedonistic Shug Avery rushes her lines a tad but no one will care when she opens her mouth to deliver the title song or wiggle in the slinky, memorable group dance number “Push da Button.” There is purity and astounding horse power in her voice. A quiet, subdued performance slowly gathers conviction, and when finally Celie asserts herself with her climatic anthem of self-possession, “I’m Here,” its power is astonishing. In the second act, when she finally gets to sing out, her anthemic ballad I’m Here earned a standing ovation in the middle of the show. (Yes, Broadway audiences are much too quick to ovate, but the applause was hard to begrudge.) She has fine support from Johnson’s Mister, whom she urges toward a late and not entirely motivated redemption, and Kyle Scatliffe and Danielle Brooks as her stepson and daughter-in-law. Danielle Brooks’ Sofia, the wife of Mister’s son, Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), is a pillar of strength and dignity, never more so than when she is under attack.

Before her glamorous transformation into an Oscar- and Grammy-winning star, Hudson might have been cast as Sofia, the role in which Oprah Winfrey, a producer of this Broadway show, made her film debut. Celie is forced to care for Shug, Mister’s longtime mistress with whom she falls in love and finally finds happiness — until Shug runs away with a 19-year-old flute player in her band. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, his bleak meditation on Black American life. Walker’s 1982 novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1985 movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, depict a brutally harsh world for poor black women, abused not just by society but by their husbands and fathers.

It seems inappropriate to complain about the litany of misfortunes that rain down on poor Celie, given what African Americans experienced in the Jim Crow South. Doyle’s signature, as perfected in his Broadway revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” has been to arm his cast with musical instruments and have them double as the orchestra. John Doyle specializes in minimalist reinterpretations of musicals, and you can see how this production — using not much more than chairs, sheets, and some baskets to create a rich version of Celie’s world — was made for that intimate space. (Doyle also designed the sets and choreographed.) There’s a perfect John Doyle moment in the opening scene, when Celie gives birth and a sheet is pulled from her dress and immediately wrapped on itself, turning into a swaddled newborn. The staging also works remarkably well in the large Jacobs (even if it’s there’s not a clear metaphorical meaning for the collection of wooden chairs suspended all the way up the tall upstage wall).

A tale that was once implausible in its stringing together of coincidences no longer seems subject to the same mundane rules of realistic storytelling.

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