'The Color Purple': Theater Review

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Cynthia Erivo and Joaquina Kalukango in 'The Color Purple'
How fitting that a show about rebirth should be so gloriously reborn.

Newcomer Cynthia Erivo stars alongside Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks, all three making their Broadway debuts, in director John Doyle's reappraisal of the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker's novel.

Wow, what a difference a more-focused production makes. When the musical adaptation of Alice Walker's searing story of abuse and deliverance, The Color Purple, premiered on Broadway in 2005, its rewards were compromised by the overblown production. Ten years later, director John Doyle and an electric cast assembled around transcendent British newcomer Cynthia Erivo as Celie have given the show a deep — and deeply satisfying — rethink. This revelatory overhaul is characterized by its grace, restraint and soaring spirituality, peeling back the excess to expose the life-affirming material's molten emotional core. It remakes a patchy musical as a thrilling one.

When it was announced that lead producers Scott Sanders and Oprah Winfrey, less than a decade after the original New York run closed, were transferring the radically pared-down production first seen in 2013 at London's tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, it seemed hasty. Now, it not only makes sense, it becomes essential, connecting to the heart of Walker's story with a power that eclipses both the previous production and Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie.

Every character feels more fully realized and interconnected, and downtrodden Celie's centrality to the narrative has been fortified, making her emancipation far more uplifting. Maybe it's just the enhanced vitality of the storytelling, but even the score by musical-theater novices Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, with its diverse influences of pop, gospel, R&B, blues and jazz, sounds more robustly unified. The previously episodic show now feels all of one piece, and each song so rooted in the characters and their experience that even cliches and contrivances gain the dignity of truth.

Read more Broadway's 2015-16 Season: Revived Classics and Bold New Works

Erivo's finely calibrated performance supplies the production's direct hit to the heart, mind and gut, but the headline news is the Broadway debut of Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery, the flashy-trashy juke-joint singer who brings light, love and freedom into Celie's joyless life. How is she? Well, Hudson might not yet quite match the assurance of the cast's more seasoned stage performers in dramatic scenes, but with that voice, nobody's going to care. Her vocals are sensational — luscious and full-bodied, with astonishing control.

That applies whether Shug is levitating Celie's self-esteem in "Too Beautiful for Words," perhaps the musical’s prettiest song, or she's strutting and shimmying with sizzling heat through the raunchy showstopper, "Push da Button." Hudson's duet with Erivo on the delicate "What About Love?" is exquisite, and she builds the title anthem into a hymn to life that only the most stubborn churl could resist. With her finger-waved hair, she also looks a knockout in costumer Ann Hould-Ward's vibrant wardrobe.

Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo

Since Hudson's Oscar-winning breakthrough in Dreamgirls, Hollywood hasn't found interesting ways to tap her talent. So this is a smart move for her, with a role that's a star turn and yet also an integral part of an ensemble. You can almost sense her confidence onstage growing as the performance progresses, suggesting that once she fully settles in, she's going to be tremendous. Her work here feeds the hope that Hudson will become a frequent presence on Broadway.

Also making a welcome debut is Danielle Brooks, a Juilliard graduate best known as Taystee on Orange Is the New Black. She bites with relish into the fiercely independent Sofia, the juicy role patented onscreen by Winfrey, letting the humor and sensuality come naturally from this gutsy woman with her outsize presence. Sofia's songs — her refusal to be dominated, "Hell No!," and her hilariously frisky duet with newly tamed first love Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), "Any Little Thing" — are both high points. Seeing this titanic character brought low by white brutality is soul crushing, and sharing in her reawakening, as she shakes off her physical ills with a salty chuckle, is cause for rejoicing.

But this production's manifold acts of renewal go far beyond its remarkable performances. In the show's defining 11 o'clock number, "I'm Here," in which an exultant Celie counts her blessings and reaffirms her place in the world, she sings: "Got my chair when my body can’t hold out." Doyle makes humble wooden chairs the key motif of his spare design. Instead of the first production's fussy scene-setting and pastel skies, their Amblin-style hues borrowed from Spielberg's movie, Doyle grounds the show in earth tones, with a rear wall of battered clapboard siding, hung with chairs. Those chairs are almost the only props used, serving as church pews, the plows and hoes of field hands, the weapons used by white colonists in Africa and the bars of Sofia's prison cell.

Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe

Doyle has built his reputation as a specialist in minimalist, presentational-style reinterpretations of musicals such as Sweeney Todd and Company, and while those are superior shows, in terms of craft this production stands alongside his best work. The stylized depiction somehow brings the setting of the Deep South in the early decades of the 20th century more vividly to life.

While meticulous attention has gone into reconsidering every detail, the approach pays off notably in the show's book — based on Walker's novel and Menno Meyjes' screenplay for the film — which now evidences greater economy. That's largely due to tightening, given that this production runs 25 minutes shorter than its predecessor. A device that only half-worked earlier — a Greek chorus of gossiping Church Ladies, played here by Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson and Rema Webb — now seems indispensable in weaving together the story's many chapters, leavening the narrative with comedy and enriching the sense of community that reaches out from the stage to draw in the audience.

One of the original show's more problematic sequences was the jump to Africa, to pick up the life of Celie's adored sister Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), working as a missionary. Whereas before, that narrative shift brought a jarring detour into full-on Lion King exotica, Doyle transports us with the simple means of basketware carried by the female ensemble members, who unfurl lengths of African-print fabric. It's an enchanting story-theater effect that keeps us tethered to Celie's world, even as her imagination travels to another place.

Cynthia Erivo (far left), Jennifer Hudson (center) and cast

It also allows the evocative writing in Nettie's letters space to breathe: "It was like black seeing black for the first time. Shiny blue-black people looking real fine in brilliant blue robes that fly on the winds." Interweaving the African interlude with Sofia's hellish ordeal also works superbly. 

Kalukango conveys the unblemished purity of heart that makes Nettie Celie's lifeline, while, in a smaller role, Patrice Covington is a hoot as Squeak, the giddy flirt who moves in on Harpo after his ill-advised attempt to control Sofia.

The material's female-centric focus makes it inevitable that the women register strongest. But where Walker's piercing compassion really shines is in the redemption she allows the men — whether for their foolishness, like weak but sweet-natured Harpo; or for their cruelty, like his father, the man known as Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who begrudgingly takes the abused teenage Celie as his wife and treats her as a slave. That aspect is served with enormous sensitivity in this production, above all in the bid for atonement, "Mister's Song," a desperate soliloquy socked across by Johnson with naked contrition.

Cynthia Erivo, Isaiah Johnson and cast

The quality of the singing throughout, and the beauty of the harmonies, cannot be overpraised, starting with the very first captivating transition from Celie and Nettie's sweet childhood song, "Huckleberry Pie," to the infectious energy of Sunday-morning gospel fervor with "Mysterious Ways."

The anchor for every part of the story is Erivo's indelibly present Celie. Even when she first staggers into view, as a heavily pregnant child of 14, raped by the man who calls himself her father (Kevyn Morrow), she seems to have a more innate understanding of herself than in previous incarnations. There are hints of the inner strength that will eventually save her, even when she's at her lowest point. While you might think that would diminish the impact of her gradual emergence, somehow in Erivo's lucid, unflinching and rigorously honest characterization, it makes Celie's discovery of her voice more profoundly moving.

More than before, Celie embodies the end of the cycle of violence carried over from brutalized men old enough to have known slavery to the first generation born in freedom but not yet rid of the old burdens, like Mister. That’s chiefly thanks to Erivo. Her performance is so ingrained with bone-deep feeling that while the harrowing life it captures is unimaginable to us, the suffering and the liberation it also conveys become part of our shared experience.

When early on Erivo sings "Somebody's Gonna Love You" to the newborn child about to be taken from her, what strikes you is the clarity and force of her voice; the song pours forth from her with no sign of effort, and with the naturalness of speech. With each number she digs deeper, finding fresh reserves of strength, of anger and, finally, of jubilation. When, at the end, she launches into "I'm Here," it's hard to believe she has anyplace deeper left to go. But she does, and it floors you, leaving you both drained and exhilarated. Erivo's the real deal, and her performance in this very fine revisal is not to be missed.

Venue: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks, Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, Joaquina Kalukango, Dwayne Clark, Lawrence Clayton, Carrie Compere, Patrice Covington, Bre Johnson, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevyn Morrow, Antoine L. Smith, Carla R. Stewart, Akron Watson, Rema Webb
Director, set designer & musical staging: John Doyle
Music & lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment movie
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Music director: Jason Michael Webb
Music supervisor: Catherine Jayes
Orchestrations: Joseph Joubert
Presented by Scott Sanders Productions, Roy Furman, Oprah Winfrey, David Babani, Tom Siracusa, Caiola Productions, James Fantaci, Ted Liebowitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, James L. Nederlander, Darren Bagert, Candy Spelling, Adam Zotovich, Eric Falkenstein/Morris Berchard, Just for Laughs Theatricals/Tanya Link Productions, Adam S. Gordon, Jam Theatricals, Independent Presenters Network, Carol Fineman, Sandy Block

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