New York City Theater
"The Color Purple"
You know that saying about "too many cooks"? Apply it to "The Color Purple," the here-there-and-everywhere musical which has 18 above-the-title producers, topped by the formidable Oprah Winfrey. Then finish the old saw about "spoiling the broth." It’s not a bad musical, but, in the end, it's a mediocre one.
What should be the touching worm-turns story of Celie, a feisty woman trying to break out from under the spell of a number of nasty men, turns out to be a two-and-three-quarter-hour slog. Since there's so much story in this episodic, emotionally distancing show, with characters more sketched in than developed, only the theme of feminism resonates.
A victim of incest by her putative father, Celie is forced to give up her kids. Later she's indentured to Mister, a drinking, whoring Simon Legree-type who beats and over-works her. Meanwhile, her beloved sister Nettie has been driven away, only to turn up later as a missionary in Africa in an outrageous scene right out of a jungle movie.
What saves Celie is the arrival of the bisexual sexpot Shug Avery. The two women get to duet on one of the score's winners, the attractive break-out "What About Love?" which climaxes with a lesbian lip-lock. The second act at least takes its time cultivating the characters.
Marsha Norman's libretto, based on Alice Walker's book and Steven Spielberg's film, is filled with incidents that tumble one after the other. Despite being set in Georgia between 1909 and 1949, it may as well be set in a cabin in the sky for all its lack of a social milieu. Only when Ol' Mister, the mean guy’s father, enters to talk about having been a slave on the farm he now owns do we get any inkling of a world beyond (Let’s not count the theme park African sequence.)
This might have worked if the show were treated as a folk tale with a modicum of satirical bite. But so much is slack and limited by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray's start-and-stop score. Nor does John Lee Beatty's mishmash scenery help although Brian MacDevitt lights beautiful skies and Paul Tazewell finds all sorts of colorful variations in the period costumes.
Playing Celie is the estimable LaChanze who has shone in other shows ("Once on This Island," "Dessa Rose"). She has a mile-wide smile, a soaring singing voice and a spunky presence, but here she's a passive appendage to surrounding action. Not until she finally confronts Mister in the second act does she emerge. It's the evening's best scene with all the characters coming alive and interacting.
More poignant and more comic are Harpo and Sofia, played with gusto by Brandon Victor Dixon and Felicia P. Fields. (Fields, sure to get a Tony nod, just about steals the evening.)
As Mister, Kingsley Leggs has to be unremittingly evil until an unbelievable reversal late in Act Two. Elisabeth Withers-Mendes as Shug Avery and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Nettie are impressive as two sides of the fun-serious coin. There's also, of course, a church-lady Greek chorus that wittily moves the plot along.
Director Gary Griffin keeps things going but has not found a through-line to work with. Choreographer Donald Byrd, saddled with that awful African sequence, fares even worse.
What's commendable is we have a genuine book show, not another jukebox musical, and one loaded with new talent. But "The Color Purple" is not so much conceived as remembered, a show of bits and pieces.
-- David A. Rosenberg
December 4, 2005