The musical version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Color Purple” is the story of Celie’s odyssey from utter despair to triumph. It is the story of discovery and the power of love. The touring production of musical version is back for a brief stop at The National Theatre and it assaults the senses with warm, affecting yet raw performances.
Adapted from Walker’s novel and the Steven Spielberg film, the musical covers a lot of ground in two hours and 45 minutes, and the tempo for most of the first act moves at a pretty fast clip. But that pace does not diminish the wonderful singing, eye-catching sets and costumes, and the moving story made more appealing and accessible thanks to the brilliant music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, and brought to life by the production’s excellent pit orchestra.
It’s 1911. By the time she’s 14, Celie is pregnant with her second child. The father is the man she believes isher father. She’s still a little girl herself, playing a clapping game with her sister Nettie outside their ramshackle home in rural Georgia.
Within a few years, Celie has been separated from her two children and her sister when her father forces her into an arranged marriage with a bitter local farmer she calls Mister. He already has several children, and Celie is brutally reduced to a life of endless drudgery and abuse.
Celie (Dayna Jarae Dantzler) inherited a stepson Harpo (Cameron J. Ross) from her arranged marriage. He grows up, brings home a wife, Sofia, and here’s where the real entertainment begins.
Sofia (the fabulous Pam Trotter) is a take-no-prisoner kind of woman. She overpowers her man-child husband Harpo and threatens Mister, yet there’s a charm to her belligerence. Trotter owns the stage when she’s singing and working a scene. She’s funny, sexy, and yet there was nothing hard about her power. Sofia’s anthem “Hell No,” is a tune she delivers to Celie, extolling the necessity of learning “how to fight back while you still alive.” She also tells Celie that while she loves her husband, “I’ll kill him dead before I let him or anybody beat me.” As several scenes were played minus Sofia, I found myself hoping she’d hurry up and get back out on the stage.
As Celie, Dantzler effectively conveys the terror and seething resentment she feels towards her captor Mister. She’s got a great voice which she uses to tell us what she’s feeling as she grows, stumbles and recovers, determined to rise again. Traci Allen (Nettie) is charming as the loyal, brave sister who refuses to buckle under any kind of threat. Edward C. Smith delivers a solid performance, yet he is simply too handsome to convey the menace needed to convincingly portray Mister. As the Church Soloist, the hip hop artist Lil’Mo proves she can sing, yet her appearances are relatively brief, given her prominence in the promotion of this production.
Sofia encourages Celie to defend herself. And the sexy Shug Avery (Taprena Augustine, just perfect), with her showy yet elegant fashion sense and her capricious love life, serenades the smitten Celie, inspiring her to see that she is lovable and beautiful. The costumes, particularly Shug’s, are a feast for the eyes thanks to the wonderful designs from Paul Tazewell.
The production uses The Church Ladies (Nesha Ward, Virlinda Stanton and Deaun Parker) as interludes of comic relief. It’s an effective device used to transition between scenes. The women—all wearing their best flowered Sunday hats—serve as the gossipy Greek chorus and inject, via songs, their usually catty and sometimes witty observations about the characters.
Celie longs for her sister Nettie, who has moved to Africa, but Mister keeps Nettie’s letters from her. Once Celie has the letters, she reads them in front of a beautiful backdrop colored in the deep greens of the jungle and earthy orange symbols (John Lee Beatty’s glorious scenic design) depicting the animals and people.
The Africa scene, which also contains a dance number, is quite long compared to the rhythm of the first act. The musical’s pace is slowing down, as is Celie. She’s coming into her own, supported from afar by her sister Nettie, and her loved ones, Shug and Sofia. The song “African Homeland” is one of the longer pieces in the musical, and it’s a lovely call and response between the two sisters.
In a really touching scene towards the finale, Dantzler as Celie literally seems to wake up, her eyes widening and filled with the joy of seeing for the first time the treasures of her heart.
She is awash in the color of nobility and spirituality—the color purple.
The Color Purple
Based upon the Novel by Alice Walker
Book my Marsha Norman
Music And Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
Produced by Phoenix Entertainment—Joyful Noisemakers, LLC, presented at the National Theatre
Reviewed by Carol Chastang
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission