Review: ‘The Color Purple’ on Broadway, Stripped to Its Essence
‘Color Purple’ musical on Broadway has a divine, moving spirit.
NEW YORK (AP) – A revival of “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of female empowerment, is back on Broadway after its predecessor closed there only in 2008. The Color PurplePurple, the color purple, represents what’s beautiful in the world, the good things in creationThe Color Purplemusical, RevivalBrenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, Marsha NormanPurple, the color purple, represents what’s beautiful in the world, the good things in creation2015-12-10 Purple, the color purple, represents what’s beautiful in the world, the good things in creation. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” writes Alice Walker in The Color Purple, her great, brutal novel of racism and sexism. Cynthia Erivo is an absolute marvel in the lead role of Celie, playing her at first with defeated deference, then indignation and then righteous might.
But when they do, something happens — maybe to the air pressure in the lungs of theatergoers — which seems to buoy whole groups of disparate audiences to their feet. 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. And my renewed excitement also comes from pitch-perfect casting of an unknown and an Academy Award winner in lead roles — an eloquent echo of the central dynamic of Alice Walker’s novel, adapted by playwright Marsha Norman. The economizing occurs courtesy of the trimming of about 30 minutes of the musical’s original two hour, 45 minute run time, mostly through cuts to Marsha Norman’s exposition-heavy book.
Cynthia Erivo, a Brit who’s unknown in New York, is spectacular as the beleaguered Celie, who loses her innocence, self-esteem and all else thanks to men in her life. 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.
Reprising a role she originated two years ago at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, she sings with such clear, honest openness that you feel everything she’s feeling — and she feels a lot. The shocker is that she can sing — and when she belts the take-no-guff anthem “Hell No!” you want to shout back “Hell yeah!” “The Color Purple: The Musical” is far from perfect. Matching her is “Dreamgirls” Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who’s in great voice and whose Hollywood glamour gives her smaller role of the sexually omnivorous club singer Shug Avery just the right added oomph. 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. 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.
And Erivo, who also played Celie in Doyle’s hit London reduction, exquisitely paces the understated character through 40 tumultuous years of male-dominated, post-slavery African-American culture. Danielle Brooks — Taystee from Orange Is the New Black — is Sofia, the rare woman in this world willing to stand up to her husband, even dominate him. Jennifer Hudson, whose Oscar-winning portrayal of Effie in the “Dreamgirls” movie made her an expert in showstoppers, gets believably sultry, if not sizzlingly sexual, as Shug Avery, the omnisexual blues singer whom everyone loves and who frequently loves in return. Another effect that’s also decidedly low-tech does not: the use of sheets to represent Africa and, in one marvelous moment, one of Celie’s newborns.
Doyle, best known in these parts for his innovative Broadway revivals of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” in which the actors doubled as the orchestra, provides a refreshingly clean slate, too, for “The Color Purple’s” physical elements. 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. Choral voices are beautiful, sure, but the musical finds its stride when it lets down its hair with sexed-up songs like “Push da Button” (yes, that button) and “Any Little Thing.” The score is at its best when it asks big questions like “What About Love?” and makes big declarations like “Too Beautiful for Words.” In Erivo’s hands, the uplifting affirmation “I’m Here” will have you reaching for Kleenex — and superlatives.
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. The man in charge here is the Scottish-born John Doyle, the newly anointed artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, who made his name by stripping musicals — especially works by Stephen Sondheim (“Company,” “Sweeney Todd”) — down to their bare essentials. 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. This overly episodic musical still doesn’t quite measure up to genre’s top-tier shows: although Celie’s evolution is capably recorded, the transformations of some of the other characters — particularly Johnson’s Mister, who’s required to undergo a hard-to-credit evil-to-angelic metamorphosis — remain unpersuasive. While his use of chairs as a visual statement — and as shovels, weapons and prison walls — feels a bit gimmicky, Doyle gets something very right with a bolt of fabric that subtly underscores the story of Celie’s rebirth.
The characters stand in a line at the beginning of each act, then live through their travails with little more than chairs and baskets and simple, moving storytelling. 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.
But mostly, his formula has proved remarkably sound; it allows audiences to zero in on a show’s musical and emotional essence, while seeming to place narrative control directly in the hands of the performers. 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. After cruelly taking her second baby away, he forces her to marry Mister (Isaiah Johnson), a brute who’d rather be with her sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), whose subsequent flight to Africa only compounds Celie’s isolation.
Doyle has cut what I count as eight songs from the score, a decision that eliminates some richness from the back-stories and puts more emphasis than I remember on religion — and makes Celie the show-stunner she deserves to be. Walker’s novel is presented as a series of letters, mostly written by its heroine, Celie, to God and to the beloved sister from whom she is separated. This allows the radical changes that occur during Celie’s life to register not only through her description of events but also through the development of her increasingly confident voice. And that goes treble for the dynamically emotive Erivo, who makes of Walker’s heroine such an urgent life force that you’re left in these troubled times with a reassuring sense that goodness really still can be its own reward.
And while Celie was played most appealingly by LaChanze, she tended to look small and lost as the show rushed through its eventful 40 years of plot, like a valiant marcher in a history parade viewed from the top of the bleachers. 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. It’s a sepia-photograph-toned world (a color scheme carried out by Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting) of bare necessities, waiting to be populated by hungry imaginations.
Only in the second act, as Celie reads letters describing her sister’s work as a missionary in Africa, are bright colors introduced into the palette. 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.
Norman’s script has no overarching framing device — no “I remember” or “Dear Reader” structure — yet the effect here is of a story coming to life in the telling. 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. Soon she will be sold into marriage to the whip-wielding Mister (an astringent Isaiah Johnson), who reminds her that she is poor, black and ugly — and trapped. 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). If the story sometimes feels awkwardly tall, especially its wish-fulfilling second act, the musical forms it takes seem convincingly indigenous to its time and place.
There is, inevitably, gospel call and response, the devotional fervor of which Celie comes to resent (nobody’s answering her prayers) and later to embrace on her own terms. Then there are the songs of resistance, embodied with verve by two very different women who help Celie learn her own strength: Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and Shug Avery (Ms. A tale that was once implausible in its stringing together of coincidences no longer seems subject to the same mundane rules of realistic storytelling. Hudson, though, brings a softening vulnerability to Shug that suggests that, like Celie, she’s been partly pushed into what she’s become by how men regard her.
The cast melds with the audience into a congregation Erivo, plainly costumed by Ann Hould-Ward, basks in a divine light whenever she opens her mouth to sing.
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