The audience attending The Color Purple represented the New York I want to live in. It encompassed a dazzling variety of ages, races and temperaments all sharing the experience of Broadway musical theater. They held back tears, clapped with joy and on a few occasions rose to their feet. In my view, that factor alone makes this production a triumph, even though I was personally left a little chilly.
I’ve never been a fan of this Pulitzer Prize winning work. Intellectually I know it should be moving, but it’s never touched my heart. I found Spielberg’s film version overcooked and never got through the book. This leap to the stage doesn’t fare much better in part because the dialogue is delivered almost as an aside. Plot points are swallowed and it’s easy to get lost if you aren’t already familiar with the material.
There’s no denying the vocal talent that fills the theater between these wasted lines. British import Cynthia Erivo is positively darling as Celie, the central character of the story. It’s hard to believe her tiny body can contain such a rich sound. Despite her voice, Jennifer Hudson is a disappointment as Shug Avery. While she can certainly belt out a tune, her movements are awkward and uncomfortable, as if her neck and arms belong to another body entirely. It’s a particularly poor casting choice given that Shug is supposed to be sultry, sexy and earthy. Danielle Brooks’s Sophia on the other hand is a revelation. The Orange is the New Black actress has pipes and attitude to spare. Here’s hoping Taystee is given a jazzy jailhouse number in season 4.
The rest of the company — most particularly the three “swings” who act as a type of Greek chorus — display a terrific range of style. If only the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray were stronger. By the time I got to the subway, I couldn’t remember a single phrase. (Meanwhile, I’m still humming “Musical” from Something Rotten.)
Many reviewers have praised John Doyle for stripping down this production. I did not see the previous incarnation, but certainly found the general motion of the piece to be clean and well paced. However, I was baffled by his set design, which included dozens of chairs scattered about the stage and hung along the walls. They were like four-legged cigarettes, often providing “business” for the actors, but if there was metaphorical meaning to their presence it was lost on me.
The Color Purple is currently playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. For tickets and information visit http://colorpurple.com. Clearly the more-than-twenty producers of this project hope it has a good long run. For the sake of those who were swept away, I do too.