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Broadway Theatre, New York
It’s hardly surprising that the infusion of an “American Idol” alum would goose business for the occasionally struggling “The Color Purple.” But what’s most startling about the starring turn by Fantasia Barrino as beleaguered lead character Celie is not the huge increase in boxoffice grosses that has resulted but rather the sheer emotional force of her performance.
Although this musical adaptation of the classic Alice Walker novel still has its problems, it seems much more moving now than it did upon its premiere last season.
The 22-year-old Barrino had never acted onstage before, so it’s understandable that an aura of stunt casting would have permeated the proceedings. But her inexperience is hardly evident in her powerfully sung and beautifully acted turn. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s more physically appropriate for the ungainly character than her Tony-winning predecessor, LaChanze, or that her personal back story provides an unexpected emotional resonance.
The show veers uneasily from tragedy to broad comedy to musical spectacle — the African musical number that kicks off the second act still seems like a castoff from “The Lion King” — but the young performer projects such a strong aura that the tonal shifts seem less jarring.
Although Elizabeth Withers-Mendes continues in her superb turn as the sultry singer Shug Avery, most of the other leading roles have been recast, to little detrimental effect. If NaTasha Yvette Williams occasionally overdoes the mugging and physical shtick as Sofia, her massive physical presence and perfect comic timing enable her to garner huge laughs. Alton Fitzgerald White does what he can with the one-dimensional role of the oppressive Mister, and Chaz Lamar Shepherd is highly appealing as the gentle Harpo.
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