The Color Purple'| a CurtainUp review
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A CurtainUp Review
The Color Purple
I'm poor, I'm black, I may be ugly. . . but I'm here. — Celie
Cynthia Erivo (top) and Jennifer Hudson (bottom) (Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy)
Chairs, chairs and more chairs are placed across the split level playing area. Even more chairs are hinged and clinging to a back wall of wooden slats like an art installation. They are the primary properties designated by director and designer John Doyle for his effective minimalist staging of the musical version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel. The lighting designed by Jane Cox contributes mightily to create atmosphere and various locales.

A hit on Broadway a scant ten years ago, it would seem an unlikely candidate for a revival so soon had it not been for the huzzahs that greeted the production when it premiered at London's Menier Chocolate Factory two years ago. (review of the 2005 Broadway production and the 2013 one in London ). The concept of using kitchen chairs instead of expensive scenery isn't a new one as it has been used before many times and in many productions, notwithstanding the most famous use of chairs in The Chairs Eugene Ionesco's absurdist comedy. Just off the top of my head, such musicals as Zorba , Grand Hotel and The Scottsboro Boys used them as a valid visual concept.

The original 2005 Broadway production was quite a show of color and scenery as it didn't deprive audiences of the kind of spectacle that also enhanced Stephen Spielberg's 1985 film. Britisher Doyle, as he has demonstrated before to laudable results with Sweeney Todd , Passion and Allegro , is, in some ways, like European avant-garde-ist Ivo van Hove who also visually deconstructs and redefines more traditional stage craft. That it works beautifully for The Color Purple once again validates Doyle's mission to totally focus on and distill the show's dramatic essence.

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 remains compelling without the trimmings. Except for a score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray that never really transcends musically beyond our expectations, The Color Purple is a rewarding show thanks to some powerful performances.

Celie, as bracingly sung and portrayed by Cynthia Erivo, winningly traverses heart-breaking and heroic. She stands firmly and affirmatively at the center of the poignant and remarkably trenchant narrative. But the show also embraces many nicely detailed emotionally resonant characters, a rarity in a musical.

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 is admirably terse but far from frail. 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 life-time of sadness, unfairness and prejudice.

In the course of its two acts we have seen 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. Perhaps the most profound life-altering incident for Celie is being separated from her dearly loved sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango). Danielle Brooks is a formidable presence as the tough and independent Sofia.

Academy award winner (Dreamgirls ) Jennifer Hudson has a voice decreed to break through the sound barrier. It comes close to it for Hudson as the sexy songstress Shug Avery and mentor to the idolizing and impressionable Celie. While Hudson's acting is still more rudimentary than revelatory, the audience at the preview performance I saw literally stopped the show after she sang the title song. Show stopping applause also greeted Celie's signature song "I'm Here.

The men are no slouches as demonstrated by the sturdy presence and persuasive acting of Isiah Johnson as the brutish Mister and Kyle Scatliffe as the sensitive Harpo. There are a number of colorful, energetically performed dance numbers for which Doyle is credited as musical stager. These dances serve as digressions and diversions when the going gets a little rough.

This production will certainly please those who enjoy the City Center Encore series of staged musical revivals, while others may feel a little cheated by its economy of production values. At its best, which is often enough, Doyle's artistic choices never compromise Marsh Norman's tough and also tender book.

I suspect that most audiences are prepared for the emotional and also joyous ride that has been prescribed for them and will happily stay the tumultuous course to the show's teary ending. When all is said and sung, the result is having been uplifted by the sheer force and power of Walker's message.

Additional comments on the production by Elyse Sommer in this feature: Some Stories Are told As (or more) Effectively Stripped to Their Essence as Big and Splashy

Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Huckleberry Pie /Celie and Nettie
  • Mysterious Ways / Company
  • Somebody Gonna Love You /Celie
  • Our Prayer /Nettie, Celie and Mister
  • Big Dog /Mister and Men
  • Hell No! /Sofia and Women
  • Brown Betty /Harpo, Squeak and Men
  • Shug Avery Comin' to Town /Mister, Celie and Company
  • Too Beautiful for Words / Shug Avery
  • Push Da Button / Shug Avery and Company
  • Uh-Oh! / Company
  • What About Love? /Celie and Shug Avery
Act Two
  • African Homeland /Nettie, Celie and Company
  • The Color Purple / Shug Avery
  • Mister's Song / Mister
  • Miss Celie's Pants Celie and Women
  • Any Little Thing / Harpo and Sofia
  • I'm Here /Celie
  • The Color Purple (Reprise) / Celie and Company

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The Color Purple
Adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman, based on Alice Walker novel and the Warner Bros. / Amblin Entertainment motion picture
Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Directed by John Doyle
Musical Staging by John Doyle
Cast: Jennifer Hudson (Shug Avery), Cynthia Erivo (Celie, Danielle Brooks (Sofia), Isaiah Johnson (Mister), Joaquina Kalukango (Nettie), Kyle Scatliffe (Harpo). Dwayne Clark (Guard), Lawrence Clayton (Preacher/Ol' Mister), Carrie Compere (Church Lady), Patrice Covington (Squeak), Bre Jackson (Church Lady), Grasan Kingsberry(Adam/Buster), Kevyn Morrow (Pa), Antoine L. Smith (Grady),Carla R. Stewart (Olivia), Akron Watson (Bobby),Rema Webb (Church Lady)
Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design by Jane Cox
Sound Design by Gregory Clarke
Hair Design by Charles G. LaPointe
Music director: Jason Michael Webb
Music supervisor: Catherine Jayes
Stage Manager: Stage Manager: Matt diCarlo

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with 1 intermission
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre 242 West 45th street 212/239-6200
From 11/10/15; opening 12/10/15/ closing1/08/17.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 12/07 press performance

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