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The Color Purple

The new musical based on Alice Walker's Pulitizer Prize-winning novel is powerful and poignant. logo
Renée Elise Goldsberry and LaChanze in The Color Purple
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Adversity is difficult but not impossible to overcome. This is the lesson that's ultimately imparted by Alice Walker in her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Color Purple, which tells the heart-rending tale of Celie, a homely, uneducated African-American girl who endures paternal rape, marriage to a brutal husband, and a bittersweet lesbian love affair before emerging as a self-employed, self-sufficient, 54-year-old woman.

It's also the lesson of the musical The Color Purple, which largely overcomes the many obstacles in its own path, including the fact that both the novel and Steven Spielberg's 1985 film version are beloved by so many people. The creative team has also faced down the challenges of adapting the book's epistolary structure, the episodic nature of the story, and the truth that, for much of the proceedings, Celie has little more gumption than a dishrag. Considering all of this, it would be churlish not to applaud wholeheartedly at the musical's curtain call. But if you have tears in your eyes or a lump in your throat -- and you very well might -- much of the credit goes to a sterling cast led by LaChanze, who gives an extremely moving performance as Celie. (Those attending the show on Wednesday evening, November 30 weren't able to witness this, as the star took ill in the afternoon; her understudy, Kenita Miller, went on for the final pre-opening performance.)

On the other hand, you may not feel much during the show's first act, where Marsha Norman's book does a lot of heavy lifting to move us through the first two decades of Celie's life and introduce the myriad characters that comprise her world. First and foremost is her older sister Nettie (the incandescent Renée Elise Goldsberry), who escapes to Africa and thereby avoids being pawed by both her father and Celie's new husband, the simple-monikered and simply loathsome Mister (Kingsley Leggs). As Celie grows older, she begins to find a sense of family in Mister's kindly son Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon) and his strong-willed wife Sofia (the scene-stealing Felicia P. Fields). But no one can fill the hole that's left in her heart by the absence of Nettie.

That wound begins to heal with the appearance of Shug Avery, the glamorous singer who is Mister's part-time lover and who eventually becomes Celie's soulmate and physical partner. Her return to town is heralded by a song blatantly titled "Shug Avery Comin' to Town." While listening to it, one wonders how the character -- not to mention the actress who potrays her -- can live up to the advance billing. But Broadway newcomer Elisabeth Withers-Mendes has a Josephine Baker-like allure and really delivers the goods, first touching the heart with "Too Beautiful for Words" and then, minutes later, shaking the theater with the sassy "Push da Button."

That number is one of the too-few occasions when choreographer Donald Byrd gets to let loose. Perhaps that's why he goes a tad overboard in the second-act opener, the colorful sequence in which Nettie's letters from Africa come to life. Seeing the show's superb ensemble perform acrobatics that seem far more appropriate to 1999 than 1929 is a tad disconcerting, as is the Lion King-like feel of the entire sequence.

Back in America's Southland, simply but evocatively designed by John Lee Beatty, Shug and Celie come into sharper focus. The show's creators are to be commended for dealing with their heroines' sexuality, hetero- and homo-, quite frankly. Yet even as the story grows more compelling, one feels frustrated. Why don't the show's talented composer-lyricists, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, give LaChanze a chance to show what she can do vocally? By 10:15, they've handed an inspiring ballad to Shug (the show's title song, which gets a resounding reprise at the end), a pleasant comic duet to Harpo and Sofia ("Any Little Thing"), and a crowd-pleasing group ditty called "Miss Celie's Pants." They've even given Mister a less-than-necessary number. So where is "Celie's Turn?"

Brandon Victor Dixon and Felicia P. Fields
in The Color Purple
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Intellectually, one can defend the decision to not have the musical's main character deliver a big aria until her feelings are fully formed. Fortunately, the life-affirming 11 o'clock number "I'm Here" does the trick nicely. (Mind you, this is not to say that LaChanze really needs the song to prove that Celie has completed her transformation; this petite but powerful performer can say it all with a gesture or a glance.)

I suspect that many facets of The Color Purple -- not just LaChanze's performance -- will be remembered at Tony Awards time. I'd put my money on the charismatic Fields, who's making a marvelous Broadway debut, and Paul Tazewell's consistently terrific costumes. (Hair designer Charles G. LaPointe also deserves special mention.) Director Gary Griffin may have a tougher time getting to the podium; his ensemble work, in particular, seems uninspired. (If it proves to be any consolation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed Spielberg for his direction of the movie, leading to a huge brouhaha.) As for the show itself, it's too early in the season to tell if it will take home the blue ribbon. But all those involved -- and that includes you, Oprah! -- should consider themselves winners for bringing Walker's work to the stage so smartly.

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