The Color Purple
’s original Broadway run attracted admiration rather than adoration. Even with a Tony Award for its lead actress — LaChanze — it exuded a certain sheen and painterliness at odds with the unsettling aspects of the story itself. It’s as if the producers couldn’t quite figure out the proper approach to a sweeping tale that concerns (inter alia
) incest, racism, domestic abuse, crushing poverty, international visa woes, and (at the same time) bubbly, jazzy innuendo (“Push da Button”). The musical was generally considered a noble, though modest, effort.
Enter John Doyle, the British director best known for his startling re-interpretations of classic musicals, Sweeney Todd
and Mack and Mabel
among them. Doyle’s gimmick is nearly always the same: visually sleek story-telling that emphasizes the sheer economy of narrative, including actors and props. (Often this is accomplished by doubling musicians and actors, and by banishing the scenery entirely.) Sometimes it works — Company was terrific — and sometimes it doesn’t (Pacific Overtures
was underwhelming: an overture rather to confusion). Would Doyle’s Color Purple
reveal this musical’s true colors?
As it turns out: yes. And that’s something of a surprise, because Doyle’s visual conceit doesn’t seem, at first glance, particularly promising: a splintered wooden wall strewn with old-timey chairs. (Nothing about that design exactly screams harrowing domestic drama.) But as the characters of rural Georgia take the stage — and occasionally take the chairs — the underlying motive becomes clear: Doyle cares deeply about these characters, and wants us to care deeply too. And that means not caring about sets and most props; and it means not caring about the Broadway imperatives of glitz, bombast, and sentimentality (as in last fall’s The Bodyguard
). Instead, Doyle peels away the extraneous elements to get to the core of Alice Walker’s story: of a Depression-era woman — Celie — who is both the object of oppressive social forces but also, movingly and miraculously, the survivor of them, and who comes into her own with an eleven o’clock number for the ages (“I’m Here”).
Though British sensation Cynthia Erivo took home the Tony for her interpretation in London and New York, we’re lucky that Adrianna Hicks — also in the New York production — could step into Celie’s (neon yellow) pants for the road. She’s terrific: amazing pipes, some lovely acting, and, goddamn, is that a great eleven o’clock number. (Well, strictly speaking, it’s a 10.15pm number: the show runs about two-and-half-hours.) Supporting roles are strong, including Carla R. Stewart as the sexually omnivorous Shug Avery, Carrie Compere as Sofia, another survivor and role model, and Gavin Gregory as Mister, Celie’s abusive husband. There’s also excellent work from J. Daughtry as Mister’s conflicted son, who becomes the site of the musical’s musings on nature vs. culture: are you born wicked or raised wicked? The score — by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray — boasts an eclectic mix of pop, gospel, and jazz, with a surprising swerve into a different genre in the second act. (No spoiler, here!)
There are flies in the ointment. The book — by Marsha Norman — races through the overstuffed plot, and sometimes the actors do too: it’s easy to miss a bit of exposition as the narrative zips from one calamity to the next. It’s not helped that the Majestic isn’t exactly the right space for the production, which originated in London’s teeny Menier Chocolate Factory: at base, this is a chamber musical, and the Majestic’s reverberating acoustics muddy, rather than clarify, the lyrics. (My companion for the evening — new to the show — said that he simply missed a lot of the words.) So I’d aim for a seat nearer, rather than further, from the stage.
But these are quibbles. This is clearly the strongest touring production at the Majestic in many a blue — or shall I say purple? — moon, and the most socially relevant, even stirring. Grab a seat this weekend — and then tweet “I’m Here!”