Sep 11, 2014

From the Review Vaults: The Color Purple, 2005

I felt pretty lonely back in 2005, when as the critic for I raved about the musical version of The Color Purple. My colleagues were largely unimpressed, as you can see here. So I felt a tad vindicated when Ben Brantley all but recanted his earlier review after seeing John Doyle's stripped-down staging last year in London; all of a sudden the show's virtues shone through. I recently stumbled upon a copy of my review (some industrious chatboard poster had preserved it, as not only made sure I was the last theater critic in their employ, they also deleted all previous reviews), and I stand by every word. Here it is in full, from Dec. 1, 2005:
Jukebox musicals and chamber pieces are fine and well. Ditto theme-park spectacles and ironic lampoons. But the new musical The Color Purple reminds us what Broadway's for, and all that Broadway can be: big-hearted, broad-stroked storytelling, with the epic emotional sweep only music can conjure. On its own terms, this deft, moving adaptation of Alice Walker's seminal feminist novel works like gangbusters; that's cause for rejoicing enough. We should also save some hallelujahs for what it represents: another alive-and-kicking incarnation of that seemingly endangered species, the straightfacedly serious book musical. A breed born with Show Boat, nurtured to adulthood by Rodgers & Hammerstein, and most recently invoked by Ragtime and Caroline, or Change, it has miraculously survived generations of deconstruction, mockery and, worst of all, indifference.

Maybe it takes outsiders and first-timers to ignore the steep odds against such a leap of faith. Though the book is by seasoned librettist Marsha Norman, the inventive, infectious score and lyrics were fashioned by an unlikely triumvirate of pop tunesmiths, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. And director Gary Griffin, though no musical-theater neophyte, is making his Broadway debut here. They've made some choices we can quibble with, and, given the show's incendiary subject matter, even squabble over. But you'd have to have ice water in your veins not to be stirred by this unabashed paean to human resilience, and impressed by a production as masterfully executed as it is soulfully intended.

Make no mistake: It's a "serious" musical but not a dour one. Indeed, by compressing the book's early chapters, Norman has emphasized the positive life lessons learned by Celie (Kenita R. Miller on the night reviewed), a poor, reticent girl in the sharecropper South, rather than dwelling on her numerous defeats and humiliations. The horrifying plot points get hit: her predatory father (JC Montgomery) impregnates her, twice, and promptly spirits her babies away; her proud, cruel husband Mister (Kingsley Leggs) violently separates her from beloved sister Nettie (Renée Elise Goldberry), and generally treats her like a pack mule, only with less affection. But the everyday sense of Celie's bleak, slavish lot in life, which makes her openly long for a merciful death, is taken for granted rather than hammered home. This Celie smiles--with bursting hope, with shy flirtation, with the joy of being alive--more than she cries or rages at the God she thinks has abandoned her.

Still, that smile is irresistible and heart-rending. (Miller tore up the role on the night I saw it; I can only imagine that the transcendent LaChanze, out sick for a pre-opening preview, will do the same, and more.) Celie's slow bloom from doormat to self-sufficient woman is authentically inspiring: When this stiff, retiring figure eventually throws herself into a dance step or two, even waggles her tush triumphantly in our direction, we feel her interior awakening with visceral force. Donald Byrd's choreography has a number of offhandedly jiggy high points, even if it often feels crammed onto John Lee Beatty's imposing, woodsy, storybook set, which includes a busy turntable and sparingly used dock-like runway over the orchestra pit. The arrival of the dissipated sexpot singer Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes) inspires one such orgy of seemingly spontaneous movement, which is effectively topped by the jitterbugging around her steamy blues number, "Push Da Button."

If the show occasionally threatens to acquire a get-happy gloss, the cast brings it back to earth with admirable grit and conviction. Withers-Mendes lends a marvelously icy sheen to the self-centered Shug, which makes her warmth all the more touching. While the role of Mister feels slightly defanged from the book, Leggs effectively clouds the character's villainy with a haunting despair. Special credit should go to comic trio of busybodies, Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Maia Nkenge Wilson, who could walk away with the show given the chance. Stealing every moment they get are the bickering couple Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) and Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon), who nail a playfully randy duet, "Any Little Thing," late in the show.

It's so late in the show, in fact, that we can only marvel at the supreme storytelling confidence of this adaptation. After hurtling forward decades, encompassing huge character turns, and taking a somewhat risible side trip to a fancifully decorative Africa, The Color Purple settles into a sweet, autumnal rhythm as it builds to its unabashedly life-affirming climax. And, miracle of miracles, we don't feel any of this as second-act slack; we hang on every word.

If that's not musical theater magic, I don't know what is. Can I get an amen?

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