"The Color Purple": Pushing da Button

Adrianna Hicks, N'Jameh Camara & Cast in "The Color Purple"
(photo: National Tour)

The Color Purple is a guaranteed audience pleaser. The original Broadway version earned eleven Tony Award nominations, (though ultimately winning only one, for its lead performer, LaChanze), running over nine hundred performances, in large part due to the famously generous publicity it received from one of its producers, Oprah Winfrey, on her television talk show. Based on the popular 1982 Pulitzer-winning epistolary novel by Alice Walker, it was first adapted as a film in 1985, which was in turn nominated for eleven Academy Awards (including one for Ms. Winfrey in the supporting actress category), but won none. These statistics may not be indicative of theatrical or cinematic politics as much as they are of the pitfalls involved in adapting such a sweeping literary work to another medium, especially when that source material is as plot heavy and full of characters as Ms. Walker’s is. Thus the first Broadway musical version suffered from a bloated book by Marsha Norman. With some two dozen songs with Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it was a challenge even for those familiar with the novel and/or its film adaptation. For those who may be unfamiliar with either, following the story was daunting to say the least. Enter British wunderkind John Doyle, who as Director, Set Designer and Musical Stager, made this touring trimmed-down version, happily, a vast improvement. Totally reconceived, it's tighter, tauter and terrific. And a lot raunchier; Doyle, in the words of one of the songs from the score, really knows how to “push da button”. He has also made its feminist message stronger now.

Adrianna Hicks & Cast of "Color Purple"
(photo: National Tour)

As anyone who is familiar with the original saga knows, the plot covers the years 1909 to 1949, centering on the evolution of Celie (Adrianna Hicks), who is fourteen and pregnant for the second time by her father. In the course of the story, both of her children are taken away from her, as is her beloved sister Nettie (N'Jameh Camara), with whom she loses contact for some four decades. Why she loses this contact, and how she progresses from a quietly passive teenager to an assertive and successful entrepreneur, the audience will discover, as she encounters numerous characters along the way, from her “husband” Mister (a menacing Gavin Gregory) and his son Harpo (ladies' man J. Daughtry) to Harpo’s wife Sofia (the wonderful Carrie Compere). Well, that’s just a few of them. All of them, to varying degrees, become a part of Celie’s story, not least the sultry singer Shug Avery (marvelous Carla R. Stewart), Mister’s long-time lover, with whom Celie falls in love, and nurses back to health. The men are pretty much reduced to sexual predators, and the women often to mere sexual objects, a timely topic indeed. Never has the phrase “less is more” been truer than it surely is here, where more had been less. With so many fates to follow and musical numbers to digest in the original Broadway version, it’s no wonder that this slimmer production is now as moving as it is, by comparison.

This is primarily due to Doyle’s direction and casting acumen. As noted, it’s a huge cast, with so many great performances that one hardly knows where to begin. Surely, though, it should begin with the serendipitous choice of Hicks, whose acting and singing skills are lovely indeed. Add to her pivotal role the compelling work by the sympathetic Camara, the intimidating Gregory, the sexy and knowing Stewart...well, the whole lot of them, in fact. With expert Musical Direction by Darryl Archibald, the stage is alive with fabulous life. The Scenic Design by Doyle and Lighting Design by Jane Cox enhance differing moods, and the Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward and the Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier add crucial elements. The craft on stage and behind it is strikingly impressive. (Though they tended to use the many chairs a few times too often in the staging).

Lest one’s praise, and prose, be too purple, there are some problems that remain, despite the efforts of all involved in this version. There is the score, which, with some exceptions that are showstoppers, (the title song, Shug’s down and dirty “Push Da Button”, Celie’s anthem “I’m Here” and a ballad or two) is unmemorable, though the songs do serve the plot. There is also the libretto, which still suffers from some sudden inexplicable transformations, not the least being the “redemption” of Mister at the finale. There are the issues of rape, incest, misogyny, servitude, wife-beating, and lesbianism (in a time when it was unspoken and unsung), that are not the typical expectations for musical theatergoers. The fact that this production is so involving, inspiring and magical is testimony to all of the professionals involved. Hicks is a revelation in the central role, and the rest of the cast is outstanding. Of note is the fact that this reviewer unintentionally neglected to mention that this is a love story about African Americans, probably because of its universal application to the oppression of all women.
If you missed it in Boston, it's coming December 5th to 10th to the Bushnell Theater in Hartford. As Shug Avery suggests, the Lord becomes angry when one walks by the color purple in a field without even noticing it. To avoid incurring the wrath of the theatre gods, by all means don’t overlook this one.

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