The Color Purple

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The Color Purple

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, NYC, December 16, 2015

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Cynthia Erivo Photo: Matthew Murphy
Cynthia Erivo
Photo: Matthew Murphy

There was always a palpable mix of joy and pain in The Color Purple. Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning book touched the hearts of readers.  Broadway had a hit from Marsha Norman’s stage adaptation ten years ago and today, in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, London’s Menier Chocolate Factory’s production illuminates the show’s raw energy and vocal power.  Still, the emotional spirit of female empowerment that drives the show comes straight from Alice Walker.

What the current production lacks, however, are the resplendent set and the colorful costumes of ten years ago.  Like the choreography, the staging has given way to a minimalist John Doyle directorial statement of wooden walls, chairs and tools used for various effects.  (One effect is unarguably imaginative: Doyle’s use of a white sheet twisted to represent the birth of a newborn.)

The musical is enlivened by four talented women led by the outstanding Cynthia Erivo (London’s Sister Act) in her Broadway debut as Celie.  Celie was small, poor and ugly.  She lived most of her life in rural Georgia and Tennessee in the early 20th century.  In her early years, she was raped by her stepfather who took away the two babies she bore. She was cruelly abused by her husband, “Mister” (Isaiah Johnson), and forcibly separated from her beloved, supportive sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango).  It is Celie’s strength that leads her to survival, success and fulfillment.  Music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, flavored by jazz, soul and gospel is full-throated emotion, delivering misery along with hope and laughter.

Erivo emotionally evokes Celie’s growth from a frightened 14-year-old to entrepreneur, confident and joyful, proved in her thundering anthem, “I’m Here.”  As her sister, Nettie, Kalukango (Encores!’ Wild Party) imparts a gentle intelligence, never forgetting the victimized sister she had to leave behind.  Danielle Brooks (TV’s Orange Is the New Black) scores as Sofia, a cheeky, strapping symbol of defiance, audacious and determined to live the life she chooses until she is almost beaten to death.

The production’s popular draw, Jennifer Hudson (the film version of Dreamgirls) takes the part of Shug Avery, a free-wheeling, glammed-up roaming blues singer who inspires Celie.  The two develop a love affair that is barely acknowledged, although they duet with a pop-flavored ballad, “What About Love?”  Hudson is the weak acting link in the show, often stiff and rushing through her lines, although her delivery of “Push da Button” at the Juke Joint pushes the JHUD vocals with its saucy power.  Supporting men include Isaiah Johnson as “Mister” and Kyle Sutcliffe as his son, Harpo.
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Under Doyle’s direction, Norman’s book restlessly speeds through Act I,  with stops for musical numbers.
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  Act II is embellished with Celie’s creative outlet of making women’s slacks.  A rainbow of Ann Hould-Ward’s costume designs now enlivens the stage and also the women’s spirits, illustrated in their joyous “Miss Celie’s Pants.”  Doyle added vibrant sheets of cloth to represents Africa, creating a distinction from the brown aridness of Celie’s life.  Yet, questions are left unanswered and situations unexplained, like what made “Mister” finally mellow at the end?

The singing and on-stage band are full volume and brimming with passion but, unfortunately, the sound in the theater is uneven.  In certain sections of the house it is almost impossible to hear dialogue or lyrics.  You are left with the choice of sitting back and letting the melodic force be with you because you won’t understand a word of what they are singing or saying.  This is not acceptable.

Yet the triumphant ending lifts the spirit and warms the heart.  Kudos again to Alice Walker and her women who appreciate the purple colors in life.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.