You can make a musical out of just about anything, as Stephen Sondheim spectacularly proved more than 30 years ago with Assassins. Still, The Color Purple, Alice Walker's 1982 epistolary novel about a beaten-down black woman in Georgia seeking pantheistic divinity during the first half of the 20th century, seems an unlikely candidate for a Broadway cakewalk. But it did end up taking Broadway in 2005, under the imprimaturs of Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, and ran for more than two years. Then again, nothing says resilience like song and dance. And in Paul Daigneault's rousing production for SpeakEasy Stage Company, a cast of 20 mostly non-Equity performers wrings the heart and soul out of the meld of gospel, jazz, and blues pulled together by pop-smiths Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. And while I wouldn't call the show whittled, by librettist Marsha Norman from Walker's tougher Pulitzer Prize winner a tearjerker, it sure jerked a few of mine.
What's lost, of course, is the vernacular poesy of the novel, which takes the form of letters exchanged between the downtrodden Celie and her beloved missionary sister as well as a few missives shot by Celie toward God. But Norman manages to hit the bases of the book: no mean feat. At 14, Celie has been raped by the man she knows as her father and borne two children, both snatched away by "Pa." She is then forced into marriage to the impersonal Mister, a crop-wielding widower who prefers her prettier sister, Nettie, but accepts Celie as babysitter, punching bag, and doormat. Of course, he is hoping to bed both girls, and when Nettie fights him off he throws her off his property, swearing Celie will never see her soul mate again (at which point Nettie disappears for decades, conveniently helping to raise her sister's children in Africa). Celie's lifeboat turns out to be the friendship of two strong women, her stepson Harpo's take-no-prisoners wife, Sofia, and Mister's longtime torch, juke-joint chanteuse Shug Avery, who awakens Celie to both sexual tenderness and her own worth.
But Celie spends a long time sinking — enduring Mister while renouncing God as "just another man, trifling and lowdown" — before swimming up toward love, gumption, and entrepreneurism. This is tough on Lovely Hoffman, the diminutive, big-voiced performer who plays her. She spends much of the first act looking at the floor in a too-big dress, the character's alleged ugliness taking the form of hair in her face. Once Celie becomes less abject and raises her face, the actress blossoms, mixing near-operatic emotion with touching sincerity and a modicum of sass. But if Celie is the star of Walker's book, Shug Avery is the star of the musical, and Crystin Gilmore, making her entrance in white fur collar with hips undulating like clothes in a washer, captures both her imperious, slightly smutty sexiness and her big-heartedness. Valerie Houston is a booming Sofia, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent gives an admirably contained performance as the evil Mister — which makes his improbable chastening more plausible. Aubin Wise is a radiant, melodious Nettie, even if her big scene seems to have wandered in from The Lion King.
Jenna McFarland Lord's simple yet effective set is like Waiting for Godot's on steroids: a large, bare tree backed by a burlap scrim and a corrugated frame, both of which lighting designers Karen Perlow and Erik Fox make glow not just purple but deep rust, among other hues. Nicholas James Connell leads the jazzy unseen combo that propels the infectious score. Daigneault and choreographer Christian Bufford keep the large production sashaying aptly between Church and speakeasy. And the spirited cast suggests a real finger- and butt-wagging community. The Color Purple is a blatantly sentimental journey, but this ardent production makes it worth the trip.