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The Broadway return of The Color Purple looks starkly different than its debut a decade ago – in lieu of elaborate set pieces, the production that opened Thursday night has the cast singing among handfuls of chairs on the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre stage.
“Because it’s stripped-down, people aren’t distracted by everything else and they just get the concentrated story,” Cynthia Erivo, who stars as Celie, told The Hollywood Reporter. “You get to know these characters more, because there’s nothing else but them.”
In contrast to the splashy $10 million show that premiered in 2005 and ran for just over two years, John Doyle’s bare-bones staging, first produced by London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013, more accurately resembles the original Alice Walker novel, Jennifer Hudson recalled being told by the author.
“You use your imagination and go on a journey, and it’s far more captivating,” the Oscar and Grammy winner said at the Copacabana afterparty. “And as actors, it puts the burden on us because all we have as props are a seat and a basket! It challenges us, and that’s why I wanted to do Broadway: to learn.”
Hudson noted her biggest difficulty during the run is putting her own spin on the iconic role of the seductive Shug Avery. Co-star Danielle Brooks — who shot season four of Orange Is the New Black during the production’s previews — revels in her humorous “Hell No” and “Any Little Thing” numbers, but said the toughest part of playing Sofia is what’s not onstage. “You don’t see that fight, nor do you get all the beat up eye makeup and hair. I have to create that. It’s challenging for me right now.”
For Erivo, Celie’s forced split from her sister Nettie can be too much to handle. “Sometimes I tip too far over and I can’t control what happens to my voice or my body or tears. I have a sister, and when you’re in it and you’re telling the truth, it feels like it’s my sister is being taken away from me.”
But such low moments make the high scenes soar. The cast has repeatedly enjoyed tearful curtain calls and extended applause, even before performing the reprise of the title song as they take their bows. And during Erivo’s redemption ballad “I’m Here,” her fellow actors are often watching, yet again, from the wings. Said Isaiah Johnson, who plays Mister: “Everything she says, every note she sings, you feel it — the purity of her heart and how passionate she is.”
For Brooks, the show’s immediate relevance brings the biggest payoff. “Especially with everything going on in society right now — war, all the police brutality,” she lamented. “The beauty of it is you see someone that was so strong get beat up and then find themselves rejuvenated in their own strength again. It speaks to where we are as a country, and as individuals, to really find your self-love and forgiveness, and all those things we’re constantly battling to find as human beings.”
The opening night performance of the Oprah Winfrey-produced show drew the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Gloria Steinem, Phylicia Rashad, Shanice Williams and Brooks’ Orange castmates Samira Wiley, Laverne Cox, Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew and Lea DeLaria.
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Portia de Rossi
James Gordon Meek