The Color Purple continues at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Director John Doyle’s wondrous redo of The Color Purple may be minimalist, but it’s drenched in emotion. At the same time, he has gloriously amped up this Broadway musical’s power as a feminist battle cry.
When this musical, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, first opened on Broadway in 2005, it was no slouch. It racked up more than 900 performances and garnered 11 Tony Award nominations, winning one for its leading lady, LaChanze. But Doyle’s new rendering, which began in 2013 at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, imbues the storytelling of Marsha Norman’s artfully wrought book with a gut-grabbing primal intensity. This intensity furthermore seems to lift the score – with its music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray – to fairly majestic heights. The small orchestra of about eight members sounds surprisingly rich.
The story, which moves through the first half of the 20th Century, centres on Celie, an African-American woman in the rural South, who as a teenager is given in marriage to an older brutal farmer, known simply as Mister. He has married her primarily to care for his children, and Celie‘s life becomes one of continuous drudgery. How she, with the help of other women who come into her orbit, finally escapes this universe of male subjugation and further comes to a realisation of self-empowerment makes for a galvanising tale in Doyle’s restaging.
The staging, on the handsome woodsy unit set of open platforms and spindle chairs (designed by Doyle and beautifully lit by Jane Cox), handily compresses a lot of Norman’s event-filled narrative. One event moves into another, with no particular scenic or other marking of the passage of time or changes in locale. The costuming by Ann Hould-Ward is suggestive of period, but for the most part maintains a non-specific feel. The men wear neck ties and suspenders; and the women are garbed mostly in simple dresses, except for the breakout of pants-wearing which make an important plot point late in the show.
The production would seem to depend a lot on the audience having some familiarity with Walker’s story. Judging by the emphatic and welcoming responses of the audience to almost every turn of plot, the audience at the performance I attended certainly did. And that’s understandable. In addition to the novel‘s widespread readership, the novel was of course made into an acclaimed film by Steven Spielberg in 1985, while the musical itself spawned multiple touring productions.
The storytelling, thus, takes on a mythic quality, and even if you had to guess at what exactly was happening, you compellingly feel its import to the people on stage. In the portrayals of a great cast, these people vibrate with a magnified sense of life.
Cynthia Erivo, who played Celie in the Chocolate Factory mounting, repeats the role. She gives the production a magnetic centre, with a grace-infused innocence that almost hints from the beginning of the backbone that will eventually make itself felt. And like the strengthening of her character, her singing seems to rise to new levels with each number, reaching sheer triumph with the climactic ‘I’m Here’, in which she realises the importance of her own self and self-love.
The glamour quotient is revved up by the presence of Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. She plays the nightclub singer Shug Avery, a one-time lover of Celie’s husband and a yearning soul who eventually forges a deep connection with Celie. Hudson brings an earthy dimension to the role that wins sympathy for the character despite her fickle ways. Even in her big nightclub number, ‘Push da Button’, Hudson lets us see under the sultriness a woman who has been both toughened and wounded by life. This underlying dimension is further revealed in Shug’s soaring duet with Celie, the show’s signature song ‘What About Love?’
Completing the trio of principal female roles in bravura fashion is Danielle Brooks as the indomitable Sofia, a woman who befriends Celie during an on-and-off marriage to Mister’s son, Harpo. When Brooks rages through Sofia’s manifesto of defiance to a male-dominated world, ‘Hell No!’, she ignites both the stage and the audience.
There is also affecting work by Joaquina Kalukango as Celie’s long-lost sister, Nettie, and Patrice Covington as Squeak, a bouncy little lady who follows Sofia in Harpo’s affections.
While the show’s male inhabitants are pretty short on redeeming features, they are not complete villains. Both Isaiah Johnson as Mister and Kyle Scatliffe as Harpo artfully round out these men with touches of vulnerability.
Finally, the moment-by-moment reactions of the talented ensemble to the ups and downs of the story’s major characters, both musically and dramatically, fairly crackle. It adds immeasurably to a production that melds pertinence with musical theatre grandeur.
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