New York City Theater
"The Color Purple"
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
Talk about bringing down the house. When Cynthia Erivo, as Celie in the exhilarating revival of “The Color Purple,” sings her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” the audience not only explodes, it stands, a rarity for the middle of a show. It’s fully deserved since the award-winning British actress is making a sensational Broadway debut. A Tony nomination is assured.
The musical, based on Alice Walker’s stinging Pulitzer Prize novel and Steven Spielberg’s film, centers on Celie, derisively labeled “black, poor, ugly and a woman” by one of her tormentors. But she’s nothing if not resilient, surviving incest, a cruel husband, secret lesbianism and the disappearance of her beloved sister. Credit imaginative director John Doyle with keeping Celie the center of attention, while also widening out to emphasize the material’s essential feminism.
Doyle, who also designed the set, eschews the burdensome scenery that dragged down the original 2005 production. The backdrop consists of dozens of chairs of various shapes and sizes, hanging on upstage planks. Set pieces are neutral in tone, as are Celie’s early costumes. But splashes of color contrast the heroine’s drab existence with flamboyance elsewhere, specifically in nightclub and African scenes, reaching their apex when Celie finds her calling.
When Celie declares “God lives inside me, and everyone else,” we connect with a sentiment that takes us out of the particular. Her transformation in the show’s 40-year span (1909-1949) from put-upon waif to independent adult is subtle, triumphant and moving. Erivo plays Celie as assured yet vulnerable, natively intelligent yet naïve and trusting. The journey from insecure child to confident adult is handled with seamless gradations.
Doyle is generous with all the actors. Oscar winner (for “Dreamgirls”) Jennifer Hudson is a sweet, not hard-bitten Shug Avery, the object of Celie’s affection. Her powerful voice and assured stage presence are not as an isolated star turn but an embedded character. Danielle Brooks is a knockout as the beset but rebellious Sofia, while Kyle Scatliffe is wonderfully confused as her husband, Harpo, and Joaquina Kalukango is warm as Celie sister, Nettie. As Mister, Celie’s husband, Isaiah Johnson manages the awkward, somewhat incredible transition from cruelty to compassion.
Marsha Norman’s headlong book glosses over some of the novel’s nuances. And some dialogue is buried in southern patois. Still, virtues far outweigh vices. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray have written a punchy score, highlighted by “Too Beautiful for Words” and the exquisite “What About Love?” Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting reinforce the production’s sepia palette.
At times heart-breaking, at times amusing, this stark yet joyous paean to women comes at a turning point in history. “The Color Purple” is both a portrait of negative, medieval attitudes towards females and a harbinger of what could come when the oppressed “learn how to fight back while you’re still alive.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 23, 2015