THE COLOR PURPLE
December 23, 2015
The first time I saw The Color Purple on Broadway it featured overblown sets, costumes, movement and direction that obscured the dramatic tale of an African American woman’s epic personal journey.
This time around, the pared down revival directed by John Doyle, the master builder of sleek theatrical productions, transcends all its previous flaws.
Set in the south at the turn of the 20th century, the magnificent Celie (Cynthia Evro) is essentially her father’s (Kevyn Morrow) slave. Deploring her physical ugliness, he inflicts emotional and physical abuse on this persevering woman. Of course most illuminating is the magnificent Erivo. Each emotion registers in her body exploding into a symphony of theatrical luminosity. On stage for the majority of the musical, the second she exits, the air molecules flatten. That’s not to say the brisk musical sags, it does not, but her presence expands over the space like a web of glittering hope.
Introspective but never resigned to her family’s incarceration, Celie is sold to the brutal “Mister” (Isaiah Johnson).
He converts Celie into a concubine, and beast of burden he whips like all the masta’s before him. Abject, unthinking cruelty resonates off a relatively bare set that resounds against a musical landscape of gospel music, field hollers, down-home blues and Broadway musical belters. Celie’s only safe space is with her sister ---who ultimately escapes by going to school, marrying and leaving the country.
Despite Mister’s Grinch-size heart, a teardrop corner of love is touched by the stylish singer and independent woman Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson). Outclassing Mister, Shug ropes him around her wrist, satisfying all his hungers and reveling in the rural “juke” joints where she releases a soulful voice. But in the end, she's transfixed by Celie’s survival talents, humanity and grace. Between Shug and Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the indomitable wife of Mister’s open-hearted son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe) Celie discovers herself and finally reunites with her sister.
There are still plenty of devastating passages including Sofia’s savage beating, but from that bone-breaking episode emerges one of the great theatrical moments. Through one tear-streaked scene after another, the musical delivers an onslaught of inspirational message boosting self-reliance, love and forgiveness.
Alice Walker’s novel shines crisply through the prism of flawed characters in search of renovated identities floating against music by Brenda Russell, Alee Willis and Stephen Bray’s and Marsha Norman’s book.
Choreographed movements emerge from the characters’ guts, and songs ring out like personal anthems frame the overall, glorious simplicity of The Color Purple.
This production deserves more than one viewing. Amen!
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis