There was little doubt that Fantasia, as she's known professionally, has the vocal chops to handle Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray, and Allee Willis' R&B-inflected score -- especially since Celie only gets her own showstopping solo "I'm Here" quite late in the second act. Not surprisingly, she blows down the house with it. But perhaps because Fantasia's less-than-charmed pre-Idol life bears some similarities to Celie's hardscrabble existence, this relative acting novice gives a remarkably authentic performance -- one that is only slightly broader at times than her Tony Award-winning predecessor LaChanze or the sensational Jeanette Bayardelle, who is now headlining the show's Chicago production.
The other really good news about The Color Purple is that Gary Griffin's direction seems considerably tighter than it did when the show officially opened 18 months ago. In addition, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes' portrayal of sexpot singer Shug Avery -- she is one of only two remaining original principals -- has deepened to the point of greatness; and most of the show's other replacements are as good if not better than their celebrated predecessors.
For those who thought the larger-than-life Felicia P. Fields was irreplaceable as the tough-but-tender Sofia, think again. NaTasha Yvette Williams not only captures all the characters' colors, but she's even slightly more grounded in her portrayal. Williams is more than ably supported by the handsome Chaz Lamar Shepherd, who is a truly delightful Harpo. As Celie's angelic sister Nettie, Darlesia Creacy is positively radiant.
Perhaps the biggest change for the better is the casting of the superb Alton Fitzgerald White, who actually makes the evil Mister -- Celie's abusive husband (and Shug's sometime lover) - into a slightly sympathetic character. Moreover, he deftly accomplishes his almost miraculous transformation from ogre to benefactor, something his predecessor Kingsley Leggs simply couldn't do.
The challenge of adapting Alice Walker's Pulitzer-Prize winning epistolary novel is not an easy one, and one must applaud how the show's creators have largely overcome the many obstacles in their path. Marsha Norman's book effectively does a lot of heavy lifting to move us through the many decades of Celie's life and introduce the myriad characters that comprise her world. However, Norman's failure to fully delineate the many passages of time can be slightly frustrating for the audience.
A larger problem -- one that keeps the musical from achieving true greatness -- is that the songs in the first act remain too diffuse. One keeps waiting for a number to really latch on to, which doesn't happen until Shug's arrival about halfway through act one. The multi-faceted opening number remains one of the musical's only major misfires, along with the incongruous "African Homeland" sequence that opens the second act -- even if that too-lengthy number is one of the too-few occasions when choreographer Donald Byrd gets to let loose. Musically, however, things pick up in the second act with the addictive "Miss Celie's Pants," the adorable "Any Little Thing" and the stirring title tune (which gets reprised as a sort of audience singalong.)
One can't complain about the show's physical production, from the simple but evocative sets designed by John Lee Beatty to Paul Tazewell's consistently terrific costumes. (Hair designer Charles G. LaPointe also deserves special mention.) Furthermore, the show's creators are to be commended for frankly dealing with their heroine's sexuality, a topic that could have caused some major discomfort for a mainstream audience.
But the cheers that greet Fantasia when she sings about being thankful "for loving who I really am" are clearly both for that daring declaration and the remarkable young woman who's singing about it.
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