Saturday, December 19, 2015

122. Review: THE COLOR PURPLE (seen December 17, 2015)

“Color it Beautiful”
Stars range from 5-1
Cynthia Erivo, Joaquina Kalukango, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
If any current big-time director of musicals can be said to have an instantly recognizable brand it would have to be Scottish-born John Doyle, recently anointed artistic director of Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. That brand, noted for how efficiently it pares away the visual excesses of traditional staging to get at the heart of the material, is distinctively on display in his gloriously sung and acted revival of THE COLOR PURPLE. This, of course, is the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, whose original production—which I never saw—opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for 910 performances, closing only seven short years ago. Mr. Doyle’s exciting version comes to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after a successful run at London’s intimate Menier Chocolate Factory. 
Antoine L. Smith, Patrice Covington, Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo, Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, Danielle Brooks. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
I say “sung and acted” but not “danced,” since only a few moments that might be thus described are present in Mr. Doyle’s swiftly paced “musical staging,” even though Donald Bird’s choreography in the original was nominated for a Tony. Unlike several other of the director’s productions (SWEENEY TODD, COMPANY, ALLEGRO), the actor-singers don’t also accompany themselves on musical instruments, but their marvelous voices are instruments enough. And the voice of voices—in a company of great ones—belongs to Cynthia Erivo, from the British cast, who soars to Broadway stardom in the role of Celie, which earned LaChanze a Tony in the 2005 production.
Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The narrative-rich show (adapted by Marsha Norman from Walker's novel), focusing on four women but mainly on Celie, is set mostly in a black community in Georgia. It spans 40 years in Celie’s life, from 1909 to 1949, beginning when she’s 14 and ending when she’s 54. When the story begins, the downtrodden girl, called “Po Chil,” gives birth to her second child by her presumed father, Pa (Kevyn Morrow), only for it to be taken away by him, just as he did with her first. The narrative follows her travails as she’s forced to marry the oppressive, whip-snapping farmer, Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who treats her more like a slave than a wife, and who angrily separates Celie from her beloved sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango). Nettie moves to Africa, but Mister prevents Celie from seeing her letters, leading Celie to think her sister dead.
Danielle Brooks, Kyle Scatliffe. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Mister’s son, the sweet Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), marries the prodigious Sofia (Danielle Brooks, “Orange Is the New Black”), who won’t let any man lord it over her and takes pity on the oppressed Celie. When Sofia leaves Harpo, he opens a juke joint and takes up with the squeaky-voiced waitress Squeak (Patrice Covington). Mister’s former lover, sultry singer Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson), arrives to sing at Harpo’s place, and moves in with Mister and Celie, where she and the girl forge an emotional (and sexual) bond. A letter Shug finds reveals to Celie that Nettie is alive and serving as a missionary in Africa; Celie soon finds Nettie’s other letters and a correspondence, verbalized in the dialogue, ensues. And this skeletal outline covers only act one!
Jennifer Hudson and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Time passes; the characters grow older and wiser; broken relationships are healed; the abusive Mister undergoes a (credibility-straining) transformation; Celie finds new strength and confidence when she becomes a successful pants maker in Memphis, where she lives with Shug; and a joyful reunion brings all together for a powerfully moving finale.
Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The complex, episodic action is beautifully simplified without a single scene change. Doyle himself designed the unit setting, lovingly lit by Jane Cox: a towering wall of crisscrossing planking on which hang a motley collection of wooden chairs, the same kind of chairs carried about and placed in multiple configurations by the actors to establish locales and scenic elements. Visual interest is enhanced by the imaginative use of sheets of fabric, from the white one Celie unravels from between her legs and bundles to suggest a newborn, to the colorful ones flapped in the air in a scene set in Africa. Ann Hould-Ward’s simplified period costumes, mostly in subdued tones except for Shug’s sexy red dress during her juke joint number, undergo few changes (like the wigs), despite the passage of time; thus the impression made when characters wearing Celie’s pants enter is that much more eye-catching.
Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
THE COLOR PURPLE takes a strong feminist stance against patriarchal dominance, demonstrating the redemptive force of spiritual faith, and depicting the overcoming of oppression. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray’s gospel, R&B, ragtime, and jazz score is filled with foot-stomping, roof-raising, and seductively balladic numbers, performed by a vibrantly talented ensemble topped by the remarkable Ms. Erivo. Her acting remains conversationally honest, in keeping with the production’s own minimalism, while her singing displays both sweet grace and rafter-shaking authority. Watching her evolve from subservient child-wife to proud, independent woman is an artistic revelation. And when she sings “Miss Celie’s Pants” or her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” you’ll know what all the fuss is about.
Danielle Brooks, Patrice Covington, Cynthia Erivo, Bre Jackson, Carrie Compere, Rema Webb. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
But this takes nothing away from the sensational Danielle Brooks, who rocks the place with her explosive vocals, as in the gospel-shouting “Hell No!” nor from the magnificent Jennifer Hudson, making her Broadway debut, and demonstrating her multidimensional charisma. Her “Push da Button,” “Too Beautiful for Words,” “What About Love” (shared with Ms. Erivo), and “The Color Purple” define her star quality. Mr. Scatliffe, Mr. Johnson, and Ms. Covington couldn’t be better, which can also be said of the rest of the splendid 17-member troupe.

There are other Broadway shows getting rousing reactions from theatergoers, but the love and enthusiasm demonstrated by the audience when I attended, including loud responses to every suggestion of female empowerment, was unforgettable. If that reaction is typical, this revival of THE COLOR PURPLE may have the legs to outrun even the original. And you can color that beautiful.


Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West Forty-Fifth Street, NYC
Open run