The Color Purple, Book by Marsha Norman. Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray. Based on the book by Alice Walker. Directed by John Doyle. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Miss Celie's Pants" from THE COLOR PURPLE; photo: Matthew Murphy
"You think you ugly. . . .look at yourself!"
Now on the first leg of its national tour, the Tony-winning Broadway revival of the musical, The Color Purple, has pulled into Proctors Theatre in Schenectady and is transporting audiences to a world gone by, yet never really left behind. In spite of opening night sound glitches, which the sound man told me were due to ill health on the part of the leading lady, Adrianna Hicks - a blatant lie based on the second act performance, the final impression of this company's work is first-rate. Hicks was unable to be heard for the first hour of the show, not her singing, not her spoken lines. Other people were overly quiet in their scenes. The second act was ultimately corrected and the balance was ideal.
The story of this play is forthright. Celie, a young Georgia black woman, after the birth of her second child and his removal from her by her own father, is sold to a man known as Mister to be his wife (for that read sexual toy and literal slave). She is separated from her sister Nettie who disappears and is presumed dead. She befriends a blues singer named Shug Avery who has had an affair with Mister, and a woman named Sofia who has an affair with Mister's son Harpo. These three women ultimately forge a future together and change the shape of their history, though it takes nearly forty years to do so.
All of this is done in under two hours in Marsha Norman's excellent reduction of the book and with a shapeless score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray using complete and incomplete songs, underscore, sung-through scenes and partial vocalise. There is nothing wrong with the score, but it is hard to define. Shug has the best songs, including two in the first act: "Too Beautiful For Words" and the duet "What About Love?" which she sings with Celie. Mister steals a moment in Act Two when he sings "Celie's Curse." Harpo and Sofia have an erotic three minutes with the song "Any Little Thing" and Celie herself gets some fine singing in with "I'm Here."
Gavin Gregory is an excellent Mister, gruff, overwhelming, and ultimately a charmer. Carrie Compere delivers nicely as Sofia, acting and singing with everything in her. Carla R. Stewart is a truly wonderful Shug Avery, both a beauty to look at and a beauty to listen to from her first entrance to her final notes.
J. Daughtry evolves wonderfully as Harpo, starting silly and ending up sensually romantic. Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn and Brit West make the most of their trio roles as "Church Lady." N'Jameh Camara is a beautiful Nettie, physically and vocally.
This show ultimately rests with its leading lady, Celie, played here by Adrianna Hicks. Once she could be heard in the mammoth theatrical cathedral that is Proctors she was incredible. She has a voice that is both lyrical and sweet with insane high notes and a deep-throated depth when needed. She is pretty and she moves with character grace and character awkwardness showing the growth of her character from abused girl to confident woman.
John Doyle's barebones direction (he is also responsible for the set design) works wonderfully for this production. He uses chairs as his basic set and props. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are liberating and barely define the time periods (1909 through 1949) but give the characters a universal sense. Jane Cox's lighting was very workable and the use of the company as a Greek Chorus worked well within the design of the show.
I enjoyed "The Color Purple" having never seen it before. It is a show that pleases its audience, though not one that illuminates a culture and its history. It has what it needs to please us, but never truly challenges us. It should do well with such a talented company and I am pleased to have seen it though, as stated up top, I would have liked it better if I could have heard it from the beginning.
The Color Purple runs at Proctors Theatre, 432 State Street, Schenectady, NY through October 14. For information and tickets go to proctors.org or call 518-346-6204.