Theater Reviews

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Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through March 9

Signaled by the unsmiling tone in which the "turn off all cell phones" announcement preceding the curtain is given, this epic musical adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, produced by Oprah Winfrey and a host of others, accommodates a surprising amount of the main character's emotional spectrum by refusing to marginalize the underlying causes of her unhappiness and despair.

It is not surprising that with each successive descent into more popular (and expensive) forms of entertainment, the novel becomes more a distant memory than a terrifying voyage of exploration and triumph. Fortunately, the powerful music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray brilliantly underscore and affirm the interior dimensions of the voyage that Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle) takes during the course of "The Color Purple (The Musical About Love)."

In addition to the dark side of the novel being downplayed -- understandably so for what is presumably being marketed as entertainment for the whole family -- the decision to telescope as much of the action as possible into nearly three hours results in the breathless pace of a cartoon. More serious is the decision to ditch the backstory of Celie's sister's marriage to a white missionary and instead use Nettie's African adventures as an excuse to stage some embarrassingly bad choreography reminiscent of Hollywood's Tiki kitsch. (The dancing, otherwise, is well designed and superbly executed, often rich in explicit sexual motions.)

The cast is as remarkably talented and charismatic as the adaptation is moderated, beginning with Bayardelle, who creates a disciplined crescendo of character development through her acting and singing that climaxes at precisely the right moment. The repressed persona she starts with borders on the dangerously stereotypical, but in laying such an uncomfortable responsibility on the audience, it brings them into the depths of the drama.

After Bayardelle, the two key performances are Michelle Williams as Celie's lover and Rufus Bonds Jr. as her brutal husband. Both command the stage and take rewarding chances. Oddly, Williams fails to fully inhabit either her dazzlingly upbeat or quietly spiritual musical opportunities (though she dances like a demon goddess), and Bonds fails to connect with a convincing emotional note in his one big set piece.

Felicia P. Fields repeats with crowd-pleasing gusto and immaculate timing her Tony-nominated, larger-than-life portrayal of Sofia -- her big number, concluding with an explosive "Hell no, I won't go!" serves as a battle cry for an audience already primed for feminist enthusiasm and pride -- while Stu James projects Harpo, who so easily could be forgettable, as a warm, endearing, original portrayal. As aspiring songbird Squeak, Stephanie St. James is adorable.

The stage design is top notch, with a series of stunning lace hangings against an impressionistic landscape and buildings that come and go with astonishing dispatch. The women's costumes, however, though they are cut beautifully and give the actors tremendous definition, occasionally look like they have been cut from tablecloth designs out of a 1950s Sears catalog. The men are dressed more sensibly and much more sensually.

Despite the occasional misjudgments, the amplified sound is reasonably natural, and the musicians in the pit obviously are having a great time.

THE COLOR PURPLE (THE MUSICAL ABOUT LOVE)
Presented by Oprah Winfrey, Scott Sanders, Roy Furman, Quincy Jones, Creative Battery, Nederlander Presentations and Bob & Harvey Weinstein
Credits:
Based on the novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture
Book: Marsha Norman
Music-lyrics: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray
Director: Gary Griffin
Choreographer: Donald Byrd
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Casting: Telsey + Co.
Music director: Sheilah Walker
Cast:
Celie: Jeannette Bayardelle
Shug Avery: Michelle Williams
Mister: Rufus Bonds Jr.
Sofia: Felicia P. Fields
Harpo: Stu James
Nettie: LaToya London
Squeak: Stephanie St. James
Pa: Quentin Earl Darrington
Grady: Keith Byron Kirk
Ol' Mister: Adam Wade. Doris: Kimberly Ann Harris: Darlene: Virginia Woodruff
Jarene: Lynette Dupree
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