Near the end of The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo, as Celie, sings “I don’t need you to love me….I’m beautiful, yes I’m beautiful, and I’m here” – which provokes the audience to rise up, tear up and cheer. Why we do so helps explain what makes this Broadway revival so wonderful.
“I’m Here” is a rousing song, one of 18 tuneful, toe-tapping melodies in the musical in a variety of styles – gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz and some beautiful ballads. Erivo sings it in a crystal-clear voice that is capable of both exquisite nuance and shattering power. That’s a good description of her performance as a whole – one of three extraordinary Broadway debuts by strikingly talented women, including Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks (who portrays Taystee in Orange Is the New Black.)
The song comes after some two hours – taking place over 40 years – in Celie’s often miserable life, in which she has been told from the start that she is ugly, first by a father who rapes her and takes away her children, and then by her abusive husband to whom she’s given away at the age of 14, with a free cow thrown in for incentive.
The grim story is based on Alice Walker’s heartbreaking and inspiring novel and on the gleaming movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. John Doyle, the director of this first Broadway revival of the 2005 musical, makes sure that our focus stays on Celie, by streamlining the production. He has reduced the size of the cast by about a third, and cut some 20 minutes of dialogue. Even the orchestra is less than half the size of the original – just seven musicians, including a “keyboard programmer.” The director has also simplified the design. There is really only one set, an abstract backdrop of wooden slats festooned with straight-back chairs, which the cast takes down now and then to use literally or symbolically.
The stripped-down result somehow makes this entertainment feel closer to a spiritual experience, which is what Alice Walker intended. Her novel is a series of letters over the years that Celie addresses to God. It explains the title, which comes from a line spoken by Shug Avery, portrayed by Jennifer Hudson, to cheer up a despondent Celie:
“God takin’ his time getting around to you, I’ll admit. But look at all he give us. Laughin’ and singin’ and sex. Sky over our heads, birds singin’ to us. I think it piss God off if anybody even walk by the color purple in a field and not notice it.”
Now, this is the kind of spiritual experience that allows for Shug to be a raw, sensuous, serially amorous nightclub singer, who belts out a raunchy blues number like “Push Da Button”; and Danielle Brooks to be Sofia, the blunt wife of Celie’s step-son who refuses to be beaten, letting loose with a gutsy, bluesy feminist anthem “Hell No.” (This is the role that Oprah Winfrey, one of the musical’s producers, portrayed in the Spielberg film.) These two characters are models of independent womanhood who eventually help influence Celie to assert herself.
It’s a long bumpy journey from despair to hope to joy and redemption and success for Celie — to that song “I’m Here.” Even though streamlined, it’s still a crowded road as well, which includes the story of Celie’s sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), and that of “Mister,” Celie’s husband (a deep-voiced Isaiah Johnson) and Sofia’s on-again, off-again passion with her husband Harpo (a terrific Kyle Scatliffe, who made an impressive debut in Les Miz.)
There are brief references to lynching and African missionaries and colonial wars. And yet it is all wrapped up at the end happily for just about everybody concerned. A cynic might label this unearned sentimentality. To paraphrase a comment attributed to the director Billy Wilder – sentimentality is what snobs call it when audiences feel something.
The Color Purple is on stage at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street, New York, NY, 10036, east of Eighth Avenue)
Tickets and details
The Color Purple . Music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, Book by Marsha Norman . Direction, musical staging, and set by John Doyle . Cast: Cynthia Erivo as Celie, Jennifer Hudson as Shug, Danielle Brooks as Sofia, Isaiah Johnson as Mister, Joaquina Kalukango as Nettie and Kyle Scatliffe as Harpo; Also Phoenix Best, Dwayne Clark, Lawrence Clayton, Carrie Compere, Patrice Covington, Adrianna Hicks, Bre Jackson, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevyn Morrow, Ken Robinson, Antoine L. Smith, Carla R. Stewart, Akron Watson and Rema Webb.Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward . Lighting: Jane Cox; Sound: Gregory Clarke . Hair design: Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations: Joseph Joubert. Music supervision: Catherine Jayes. Music director & Conductor: Jason Michael Webb . Production stage manager: Matt DiCarlo . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.