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Friday, September 2, 2016

The Color Purple

The radiant Cynthia Erivo as Celie, photo @ Matthew Murphy

I saw The Color Purple last night on a total whim. I had heard wonderful things about this revival but I had been resistant because as a rule I dislike musicals that are based on beloved novels. Alice Walker's novel was/is so perfect that I thought any musical adaptation would seem shallow by comparison. I also didn't have any points of comparison -- I hadn't seen the original Broadway production.


For this revival director John Doyle made the conscious choice not to age the actors in any way even though the story spans almost 40 years. Aging was indicated by body language, vocal inflection, facial expression. There were also no real scene changes -- a large unit set (a back panel of wood and a bunch of chairs) suggested the stark surroundings of Celie's life: her home, her church, her community. Celie's birth of her second child was depicted as Celie pulling a large sheet from under her dress, then folding the sheet to resemble the shape of a baby bundle.

The net effect was that the focus was squarely on the actors. When the house lights dimmed I was skeptical of the direction. Could the actors really carry the entire musical? Well forget the doubts. Believe the hype. Cynthia Erivo (Celie) is every bit as astonishing as everyone says she is. She has the pipes, she has the charisma, and most importantly, she has that inner radiance and light. She walks onstage and without saying a word her body emanates "I'm Here." (Later when she sings the 11 o'clock number she gets a standing ovation.) In addition to her incredible pipes, Erivo is an amazing actress. Her Celie is tough, practical, of a very strong constitution. Erivo takes the audience on Celie's journey and at the end of the evening most of the audience was in tears but it didn't feel cheap or manipulated. We were actually crying for Celie. Erivo earned her Tony.

Johnson as Mister, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The entire cast is remarkable. They all have strong handsome voices, and they also are all wonderful actors. No one phones it in -- they make every moment and every line count. Heather Headley as Shug Avery was sultry, seductive, with just enough of a careworn look and manner to suggest that Shug's swagger is equal parts genuine and a show. Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe were nice comic relief as Sofia and Harpo, whose relationship differs so much from Celie's relationship to the brutal Mister (a wonderful Isaiah Johnson, whose suave man-next-door persona made Mister someone you know and recognize).  Joaquina Kulakango was lovely as Nettie, Celie's long-lost sister. Smaller characters like Squeak (Patrice Covington) and the ever-present chorus were all cast from strength.

The three amazing ladies, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple is not perfect -- for one, the book by Marsha Norman doesn't capture the voice of Celie as well as the book does. Norman is more sentimental, and the second act has a slightly pat, mawkish feel. The music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Steven Bray, and Allee Willis. There's certainly moments in the score that are beautiful -- the anthem "I'm Here," the title song "The Color Purple," and Celie's tender lullaby to her son "Somebody's Gonna Love You." But unfortunately a lot of the music sounds too similar -- a sort of generic faux-gospel/soul sound. It's a great story, but not necessarily a great score or book.

Thus it takes an incredible cast that's full of energy and conviction to pull this off and this cast certainly did. Erivo's radiant voice and expression were so full of uplift that I can only say: Like a blade of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all part of me. Like the color purple, where did it all come from?" Beautiful beautiful evening. Catch Erivo while you can (I believe she leaves the show in January).


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