Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 11, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `The Color Purple’

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel made it to the big

screen in 1985 via director Stephen Spielberg. Notwithstanding the

film’s glossy veneer, the decade-spanning story of a poor, abused and

sexually conflicted black woman who discovers her true self and worth

during the first half of the 20th century in the Deep South was forged

in suffering and survival. Similar in this respect to the film, the

musical version casts a not entirely unwelcome shimmer on what is

basically a sad and sobering tale. Celie, the heartbreakingly real

central character, propels a poignant and trenchant narrative that

embraces many richly detailed emotionally resonating characters. The

film managed to keep the novel’s many turbulent and interlocking lives

in focus and earned new fans. Many have been moved to go on and read

the extraordinary epistolary novel.

Despite the need to reduce the sprawling saga to sound bites and

dramatic punctuations, the book that Marsha Norman has written for

this musical version courageously sustains the plot’s feminist agenda,

is admirably terse and far from frail. There are enough personal story

lines and events in "The Color Purple" to fill a dozen musicals. But

the production team makes certain that we never lose sight of the

circuitous path of a mistreated African-American woman who perseveres

and finds love and redemption in the face of a lifetime of sadness,

unfairness and prejudice. At the performance I attended, fans of the

film were legion and were undoubtedly pleased to hear a lot of

familiar dialogue to which they often responded with cheers and

applause.

We are hard pressed not be get thoroughly involved in the turbulent

life of the resilient Celie (LaChanze), as she is seen progressing

from a life of dependence into a woman of independence. An amazing

story needs an amazing score. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have one. The

best I can say for the music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee

Willis, and Stephen Bray is that it is loud, insistent, and passionate

without ever stirring our senses or capturing the vivid lyricism of

its source. Although the composing team is experienced, they are new

to musical theater. They have wisely not attempted to create a

sung-through pop-operetta. However, the songs seem more like

calculated impositions rather than flowing directly out of the

narrative.

While audiences will undoubtedly arrive with an image of the film’s

star Whoopi Goldberg in their head, LaChanze convincingly embraces the

role of Celie. She may be too obviously pretty for a role in which she

is self-described as ugly, but her performance is otherwise rooted in

truth and impassioned resourcefulness. In the course of two and one

half hours we see Celie as a 14-year-old, a victim of rape twice by

the man she presumes to be her father; as a young mother who has her

two infants taken away from her at birth; and as a piece of chattel

passed from one despicable man to another. When LaChanze finally has

her say with the attention-grabbing throat-choking aria "I’m Here"

near the end of the show, we see the kind of character-defining image

that has long been in the making.

Perhaps the most profound life-altering incident for Celie is being

separated from her dearly loved sister Nettie (Renee Elise

Goldsberry). Although limited to a few scenes, Goldsberry is touching

as Nettie, who finds her calling as a missionary working with children

in Africa.

To Norman’s credit, the musical isn’t afraid to give the supporting

yet essential characters plenty of room to charge the action with

their individuality. The women are particularly strong and

resourceful. Felicia P. Fields is a formidable presence as the tough

and independent Sofia, the role played by Oprah Winfrey, in the film.

Winfrey is now a major backer and promoter of the musical. Elisabeth

Wither-Mendes fills her role as the sensual honky tonk chanteuse Shug

Avery with plenty of verve. The scene with Shug, in which Celie

experiences romantic love for the first time, is beautifully and

sensitively dramatized.

The men, even if they are primed to arouse more apathy and sympathy

make lasting impressions. Kingsley Leggs is effective in doing a

complete turnaround from cruel to repentant, as Celie’s husband,

Mister. There are some nice opportunities for Brandon Victor Dixon, as

Celie’s ineffectual but warm-hearted stepson, Harpo, and Krisha

Marcano, as his spirited girlfriend, Squeek, to spark the action. A

trio of gossiping church ladies, who appear periodically to comment on

the goings-on, are a banal touch that merely splinters the show

whenever they appear.

There are a number of colorful, energetically performed dance numbers

choreographed by Donald Byrd that serve as diversions but seem also

oddly pressed into action when the going gets a little rough. As

directed with skill by Gary Griffin, "The Color Purple" is

conventionally episodic and reflective of old school musical. Yet the

lack of artistic conceit and self-importance also works in the

musical’s favor as the story is never compromised. Griffin, who is

making his directorial Broadway debut, is also the director of "A Moon

for the Misbegotten" at McCarter Theater, which goes into previews on

Tuesday, January 17, and opens Friday, January 20.

"The Color Purple" is visually stunning as seen from the artistic

perspective of designers John Lee Beatty (settings) Paul Tazewell

(costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting), each of whom captures the

time, place, and atmosphere with plenty of evocative dazzle. Most

audiences know and expect the emotional ride that has been prescribed

and will happily stay the course to the show’s teary ending. When all

is said and sung, the result is having been through the ringer

musically and dramatically, but also of having been uplifted by the

sheer force and power of Walker’s message. HHH

– Simon Saltzman

"The Color Purple," the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway. $26.25 to

$101.25. 212-239-6200.


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