At The Arie Crown Theatre
Book by Marsha Norman (adapted from the novel by Alice Walker)
Music & Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray
Musical Direction by Sheilah Walker
Choreography by Donald Byrd
Direction by Gary Griffin
Take the time to stop and notice The Color Purple
I walked into this production wondering how Alice Walker’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning novel could ever be adapted into a musical. The novel, which happens to be one of my all time favorites, consists of a series of letters told in the first person. I was skeptical because even Steven Spielberg was not 100% successful in turning this masterpiece into a film. I believe musicals are most effective when emotion is so high that singing is the only form of release, and after this experience I now feel musical theatre is the perfect venue to tell this story.
While an intimate knowledge of the book is helpful, you do not need it to be effected by director Gary Griffin’s passionate and moving production. The Color Purple focuses on Celie (in a tour de force performance by Season 3 American Idol Fantasia), and 34 tumultuous years of her life. This woman will make you think twice before saying “everything in my life is wrong”. By age fourteen she is pregnant with her second child, she is sold into a loveless marriage, loses contact with her sister Nettie (played by Season 3 American Idol finalist Latoya London), loves and loses, etc. These are just the nuts and bolts of her life.
One of the few highlights of her life is when her stepson Harpo (deftly played by Stu James) marries the tough as nails Sofia (the always wonderful Felicia P. Fields). Sofia does not subscribe to the philosophy that the wife is inferior as stated in the showstopper “Hell No”, and is a beacon of hope in Celie’s bleak journey. The major turning point is when Celie meets singer Shug Avery (the wonderfully sensual Angela Robinson). Shug is a subject of much controversy, because her incendiary arrival causes the women to lock up their husbands and the men to put on their Sunday best. Shug and Celie do no have the best start, but eventually Shug mentors Celie on how to love life and most of all herself.
The first act of The Color Purple is choc full of information, and conveys it like a bullet train. However, the second act does not have the same focus and meanders to the good moments. Luckily, these moments are well worth the wait.
I applaud director Gary Griffin for finding inventive ways to move the story along, get the most out of a minimal but lovely scenic design by John Lee Beatty, and helming a truly inspiring ensemble of actors. It was apparent that every member of the cast believed what he/she was saying, and it was contagious. The true sign of strong ensemble work is when everyone counts regardless of stage time, and I feel some type of award should be given to the 3 church ladies whose gossip serves as a Greek chorus (filling in the audience to exposition and offstage action). While the score is not memorable, this cast made it a joy to hear in the moment.
The biggest surprise of the night was Fantasia (whom I remember tenaciously voting for to win American Idol Season 3). I walked into the musical knowing that she would be able to sing the role with no problem, but amazed at the depth she brought to the complex role of Celie. I hope this is a springboard (like it was for Whoopi Goldberg in the film) for other roles.
The Color Purple is here for a limited time, which is a shame because I feel more people need the opportunity to experience this production.
The Arie Crown Theater, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive. Tickets are available at The Arie Crown Theater Box Office, online at ticketmaster.com, charge-by-phone at (800) 745-3000 and at all Ticketmaster outlets. Tickets range in price from $49.50-$85. Through September 6.