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Sometimes a period piece can feel achingly contemporary.
That’s the case with the current national tour of “The Color Purple,” the musical based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel centering on the experience of black women in the early 20th century American South.
It opened at the Shubert Theatre (where it’ll play through Dec. 3) on Tuesday night in front of a rapturous and full house, whose members seemed highly keyed into every moment, growing increasingly vocal as the show progressed from a depiction of hardships and deprivation to a surging anthem of redemption.
If the material — the musical, not the novel — is too determined to move on from the sting of painful moments in service of a feel-good Broadway experience, I imagine that you can’t undersell the empowering sensation for many who watch this all-African-American cast, including 11 women among its 21 members, surge forward and milk every uplifting ounce of that upbeat finale.
The contours of the story, and several chunks of dialogue, are familiar to anyone conversant with Walker’s 1982 book or the five-hankie film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg three years later. We meet sisters Celie (played here by Adrianna Hicks) and Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) at their rural Georgian homestead in 1909. Fourteen-year-old Celie gives birth to her second child at the top of the show, the product of rape by the man she believes to be her father. Like the first, her second baby is immediately taken from her and sold away mysteriously. She’s soon given to a whip-wielding farmer (Gavin Gregory) known for most of the show simply as Mister — an arrangement that is more like a sentence to hard labor and sexual exploitation than a marriage. Nettie, who is two years younger than her sister, flees in the face of sexual advances by her father and by Mister, who is enraged by her refusal.
Celie finds an unlikely friend, ally and love interest in Mister’s on-again, off-again mistress Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a touring singer. Mister’s adult son Harpo (J. Daughtry) and his wife Sofia (Carrie Compere) also figure in, and we see alternate responses to a stifling patriarchal system and, in one infuriating subplot, the brutal enforcement of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Shug plays her sexuality to her advantage but comes to feel the limitations created by this bargain. Sofia fights the power and is punished cruelly. Celie endures Mister’s beatings and humiliations for decades before asserting herself and claiming her personhood, declaring (to roaring audience approval) “I’m here” in the song of the same name.
This production is based on the John Doyle-directed iteration that won the Tony Award for Best Revival in 2016. Like the original version that ran for three years beginning in 2005, it was a hit at the box office; unlike its predecessor, it was also a hit with critics.
It seems that the original staging of this musical was as overstuffed and hectic as the material — which gallops through the decades, densely packing major plot points and seldom pausing in service of mood or to let an emotional beat land firmly. (The book is by Marsha Norman, the music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.)
Doyle’s signature move is to strip things down, and he does that here to very good effect. The static set, designed by the director, is composed of three tall, wooden panels that suggest a broken-down house or cabin; wooden chairs are hung on pegs all over them and frequently removed and rearranged around the stage by the cast, who stand behind the set when not involved in a scene. But Doyle frequently crowds the playing space with much of the ensemble, who function wonderfully as a unit. Jane Cox’s lighting design creates a nicely Gothic, shadowy effect with the set during Mister’s solo “Celie’s Curse,” but often keeps the front-of-house in a conspicuous amount of light, as if to invite the audience not only to see itself but to be part of things.
The music dips into various forms of early-century African-American music, predominantly gospel. There’s a hint of work songs (in “Big Dog” and “Black Betty”) and bluesy swing (“Push Da Button”), but often these stylistic samples are fluffed up to Broadway contours. The genre exercises feel heavy-handed in the African-styled number (dominated by a synthesizer meant to sound like a marimba), but Norman wittily fuses secular and sacred music in the surging “Miss Celie’s Pants,” winningly stomped out by six of the cast’s women in a pleasing show-stopper. Compere (who also played Sofia on Broadway), Stewart and Hicks are all given showcase numbers and each delivers in turn.
Part of Doyle’s stripped-down vision includes refraining from reflecting the passage of time. Neither the actors’ performances nor their costuming or makeup give any indication that 40 years passes between the curtain going up and falling. This is a historical epic that seems to exist outside of time. Thus the stakes erode. Combined with the rapid-fire plot developments, there’s a sense of nothing really sticking. In a few minutes’ stage time, we learn that Sofia is in trouble, then in jail, then ready to be released from jail years later, blind in one eye. A couple of numbers later, she’s singing and dancing up a storm.
Mister’s cruelty to Celie, so crucial to the story as written by Walker, is only occasionally suggested, perhaps to make it more palatable when we’re finally asked to buy their eventual, partial reconciliation. It’s like the musical’s authors insist on finding a weird equilibrium that smooths out the unhappy consequences and uncomfortable feelings that would add greater depth to this journey.
Maybe the show’s discomfort with pathos is the reason it got a weird number of laughs on the night I attended. When Celie advised Harpo to beat Sofia, or morosely declared her intention to kill Mister, the audience received it as a funny one-liner. Mister’s creepy, sexual sizing-up of Nettie also got a chuckle. I can’t imagine this is the emotional reaction the musical’s authors were seeking to provoke in these moments.
I took the latter case as an uncomfortable reminder that, a few hours previous, President Trump had urged Alabama voters to support a Senatorial candidate who is credibly accused of sexually assaulting two underaged girls. The musical served as a reminder of the social structures in place, then as now, that could make such behavior not only possible but excused.
But when “The Color Purple” swings big for its crowd-pleasing moments, it hits it out of the park. This is a show where a costume change for Celie provokes an ovation. It isn’t seasoned by the tears or stained with the grit that you’d expect it to be, but it’s a rousing night at the theater. The production makes it easy to sing along with its final word: Amen.
"The Color Purple" continues at the Shubert Theatre through Dec. 3.
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