Heartwarming. Soul-nurturing. Epic in ambition and yet intensely personal. The Color Purple is a musical triumph on so many levels that it would be difficult to know where to begin were it not for Fantasia in the lead role as Celie whose dramatic gifts more than match her acclaimed vocal ones. She portrays a character whose story spans several decades and transforms from a wounded sparrow of a child to a mature, self-confident, independent woman; and she performs throughout with a naturalness and honesty that is completely captivating.
Alice Walker’s novel received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and yet has the dubious distinction of the most frequently challenged and banned books in school and public libraries across the county. It’s a gritty, brutal story encompassing incest, child sexual abuse, violence and explicit sexuality.
The musical opens with Celie and her sister Nettie (LaToya London) sweetly play a singing game while clapping hands with each other and seques into rousing gospel number which introduces the church ladies, the backbone of the community, three of whom – Doris, Darlene and Jarlene (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Lynette DuPree) – serve as Greek chorus to provide background, establish character, and generally advance the plot as well as to give much needed humor. In stark contrast to this rousing hymn, in quick succession we see fourteen year old, motherless Celie deliver a son, her second child conceived by her brutal father (David Aron Damane). In a still moment, the Celie pours her hopes for her baby into the ballad “Somebody Gonna Love You.” The baby is torn from her arms, taken away by her father as he had the daughter she bore him earlier.
Physically and emotional abused, told constantly that she is ugly, stupid and unworthy of affection, Celie’s sole consolation is her sister Nettie, a creature so beautiful and intelligent and kind that she has an angelic glow. In rapid succession, Celie’s father casts her off to be the wife of a local farmer (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) and to raise his children. So dehumanizing is the relationship that Celie does not learn her husbands name (she refers to him as Mister) until his mistress calls him Albert). The pain is further deepened when Celie loses contact with Nettie who first flees the advances of her father and then is banished by Celie’s husband for refusing him. Cut off from beloved sister, not knowing whether she’s alive or dead, and separated from her son and daughter, Celie seems destined to know only suffering.
But as we heard in the opening gospel number, God works in mysterious ways, sending Celie two very unlikely messengers of hope: Sofia (Felicia P. Fields reprising her Tony-nominated performance) is the very pregnant bride of Celie’s stepson Harpo (Stu James), and singer Shug Avery (Angela Robinson, another of the many actors in the touring production who played the role on Broadway) is Mister’s off-again-on-again mistress. Sofia is a living lesson in self-esteem and an indomitable spirit.
When Celie unwittingly encourages Harpo to keep Sofia in check the way Mister beats Celie, Sofia brings the house down with a show-stopping rendition of “Hell No!” — she’s had to fight all her life and won’t tolerate abuse in her own home.
Shug Avery’s anticipated arrival has the men in a lather and the womenfolk in a tizzy. She arrives like a tornado but collapses from exhaustion and Celie finds herself appointed nursemaid. When she finally does perform in Harpo’s juke joint, Shug brings down the house with her racy rendition of “Push the Button.” Shug is the only other person besides Nettie who appreciates Celie’s goodness and she is determined to help Celie break the cycle of insecurity and abuse, affirming that Celie is “Too Beautiful for Words” and more then worthy to experience tenderness, “What About Love.” And, ironically, Shug, the apostate preacher’s daughter, is the one who renews Celie’s faith (“The Color Purple”). Through Shug, Celie discovers that Mister has been hiding Nettie’s letters for years; not only is she alive, but Nettie’s letters contain some astonishing news.
There are more plot turns and twists, on two continents no less, before all the storyline threads are woven together. While many characters and scenes from the novel have been omitted, the musical races like a raging river, sometimes spilling over its banks with so many subplots, to cover so much content in less than three hours. Still, there’s not a scene which doesn’t contribute a much need element and the first act, in particular, is so compelling that it flies by all too quickly.
Gary Griffin’s direction is well-paced and perfectly on focus for each scene, building story and character hand-in-hand. Donald Byrd’s choreography is great fun in the juke joint scenes and especially in the randy pas de deux for Harpo and Sofia, “Any Little Thing” (I Can Do for You).
Not surprisingly, the sets (John Lee Beatty), lighting (Brian MacDevitt) and costumes (Paul Tazewell) are stunning, coming from three leading and award-winning professionals. A starry sky over a candle-lit juke joint, a luscious pastel sunrise, an African mosaic quilt backdrop in rich and vibrant colors, or jagged cracks of lightening on a stormy night, all evoke the perfect atmosphere for each scene. The costumes from head to toe are exquisite in every design and detail. The only quibble with the production is the intermittent sound problems or special sound effects which rendered some of the lyrics unintelligible, but this was very infrequent.
The Color Purple‘s food for the soul, songs for the heart, and inspirational message make this a musical theatre treasure.
Audience advisory: Please note that Fantasia will not perform on the following dates: All Sunday matinee performances; Friday evening, Jul. 31; Saturday matinee, Aug. 1.
The Color Purple
adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman from the novel by Alice Walker and the film by Steven Spielberg
music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
directed by Gary Griffin
presented by The Kennedy Center
reviewed by Gary McMillan
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