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A CurtainUp Review
The Color Purple
By Elyse Sommer
So how does Celie's story fare as a musical? Is Marsha Norman's libretto, based on both the novel and the movie, true to the sources and suited to the demands of a musical? Do the composer-lyricists, experienced tunesmiths but musical theater novices, rise to the opportunity of having their first show open on Broadway? Is LaChanze, a fine but less high profile performer than Whoopy Goldberg, a Celie to treasure? And can Broadway newcomer, Felicia P. Fields play Sofia with enough flair to dispel comparisons to the role so memorably played by Oprah Winfrey -- now one of the show's producers and major boosters?
To begin with the book. Norman has obviously worked hard to tame the convoluted plot and to avoid having this turn into the opera style musical it could easily have become. She's toned down but not abandoned the story's darkness and has set up the tragedy of motherless Celie's situation quickly and efficiently: A stepfather who impregnates her twice, gives away her children and, when she's just fourteen, marries her off to an equally cruel man with whom she endures more than three decades of physical and emotional mistreatment that includes her being kept in the dark about whether her children's and her beloved sister are alive. Through it all she calls him Mister because he never told her his name (Albert).
Making this epic journey from despair to the discovery of love, independence, creativity and spiritual renewal into a musical that's fun and bright is a tough balancing act, but Ms. Norman and director Gary Griffin prove themselves to be adept jugglers. While there are plenty of get out your handkerchief moments, it is clear from the start that this is also a good time show. The lovely opening that has Celie and her sister Nettie playing patty cake in a rare carefree moment is followed by a lively Sunday Go to Meetin' scene with a rousing gospel number, "Mysterious Ways," in which we first meet the three gossipy church ladies who act throughout as an entertaining chorus to comment on what's been happening.
Norman's libretto commendably doesn't gloss over the sexual relationship between Celie and the glamorous good-time singer, Shug Avery. She also doesn't overdo it. As Shug is the crucial character responsible for Celie to finally abandon her non-person invisibility and the one to supply the missing pieces in the puzzle of her lost sister and children, it is Mister's unfulfilled love for Shug that makes it possible for us to buy into his eventually becoming almost sympathetic.
The two main subsidiary characters, Mister's son Harpo and his feisty wife Sofia, are also well developed to move the story forward and make room for apt songs; for example, Sofia accompanies her advice to Celie to stand up to Mister with the peppy "Hell No!"; Harpo's break with the family pattern of harsh, self-destructive treatment of women is illustrated with an amusing second act duet with Sofia, "Any Little Thing."
As for the performers. LaChanze is a Celie you can't help but root for and her voice is big and rich enough not to need the over-amplification that's become all too typical of Broadway shows. Felicia P. Fields plays Sofia with the called for flair -- and then some. She captures the humor in this woman's uncompromising personality as well as the devastating pain during the show's only scene focusing on the white supremacy background. With LaChanze, by virtue of her role, a rather bland presence for much of the show, Fields and another Broadway newcomer, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes who plays Shug, are really co-heroines rather than support players. Their respective first appearances are what really sets the show's slow-burning fire ablaze.
Other secondary characters are so strong that they at times tend to overshadow the central story. This is especially true for Brandon Victor Dixon's engaging Harpo. His transformation from dominating to more sensitive and modern man mitigates the ugly picture of men who've assumed the worst traits of their former white masters. The scene stealers in the fun department are Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Maia Nkenge Wilson who comprise the Church Lady chorus.
With songs running the gamot of blues, jazz, gospel and ballads, the composer-lyricists can't be faulted for lack of variety in musicalizing the story. Celie and Shug's "What About Love?" is a moving ballad despite some rather banal lyrics. In fact, all the songs are pleasing and serve the story well even if not Porgie and Bess or Purlie caliber.
Choreographer Donald Byrd's talents come off best in the strutting "Push Da Button" and "Miss Celie's Pants" but the "African Homeland" extravaganza at the top of the second act feels a bit too much like wannabe Lion King.
John Lee Beatty, who can always be depended on to give a story the most evocative and fitting environment possible, does not disappoint here. The curtain, imprinted with a different letter to God from Celie before each act, pays tribute to the epistolary structure of Walker's novel. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt creates some gorgeously poetic shadow effects, and Paul Tazwell has dressed everyone to character defining perfection.
It's taken eight years for this musical to reach Broadway. Whether it can now settle in for a run to match its evolutionary period depends on audiences' response to this carefully calibrated blend of sad and glad -- not to mention the Oprah factor that has turned many a modest novel into a major hit and will certainly give The Color Purple a chance to blossom into the box office's favorite color, green.
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