Saturday, March 19, 2016

Review of "The Color Purple"

Note:  Heather Headley is now playing the role of Shug Avery originated by Jennifer Hudson.

Very infrequently the theater transcends from simply a live event into something special.   Something magical.  That is what is taking place at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre in the outstanding revival of The Color Purple.  The reason is the three women starring in the production—Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, and Danielle Brooks.  They deliver powerhouse, mesmerizing performances that will not be forgotten come award season. 

The story revolves around Celie, a poor African-American woman in the Deep South and her hardscrabble life.  She is married off to the uncaring, belligerent Mister, who sees her as someone to cook, clean, and take care of him and his household.  Her beloved sister, Nettie, once set to go off to college to become a teacher, has mysteriously vanished.  Other people that intersect her life include her stepson, Harpo, and his overbearing wife, Sofia; and the femme fatale, Shug Avery.  During the ensuing years Celie’s faith, inner strength and resolve keep her head high and moving forward as she is confronted with racism, sexism and, finally, liberation from her struggles, independence in life, and a long coming reunion with loved ones.

The acting corps is superb, led by the three female stars.  Cynthia Erivo as Celie, delivers a dazzling performance.  She has a steely determination and focus rarely seen in an actress.  You can feel her intensity as she triumphs over adversity after adversity.  Jennifer Hudson as the sultry Shug Avery doesn’t appear until the latter half of Act I.  But when she sashays on stage an invisible aura radiates throughout the theater announcing a true star has entered our midst.  Hudson is sexy, commands attention, and possesses a golden voice.  Her character is at times giddy, contemplative, and world-weary.  Danielle Brooks, as Sofia, is a fiery, non-nonsense woman.  Other notable actors include Isaiah Johnson as the gruff, boorish, and menacing yet, ultimately, sympathetic Mister; Kyle Scatliffe as the good-time, weak-willed Harpo; and Joaquina Kalukango as the pure, self-sacrificing Nettie.

The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray combines gospel tinged songs, heartfelt ballads, raucous honky tonk, and African melodies.  It has two luscious signature songs—“Too Beautiful for Words” and “What About Love?”—and enjoys the advantage of being sung by a group of impressive artists.

Book writer Marsha Norman has taken Alice Walker’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel and pared it down to its essence.  She gives breath to the assorted characters and successfully brings out such universal themes as love, loss, and empowerment.

John Doyle, the director behind such minimal Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd (I didn’t like) and Company (I did like) has successfully taken the larger, more embellished original show and carved out a straightforward, spare, and self-contained musical.  He concentrates on the characters, their interactions, and the score, which heightens the drama and focuses our attention on the foremost components of the musical.  He smartly doesn’t treat Hudson as the star but as a core member, which makes the production much fuller. 

The Color Purple, a musical that will make you believe in the magic of theater.

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