Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Color Purple
Also see John's review of Shenandoah
Producers and investors may be attracted to the odds of financial success promised by the idea of musicalizing a successful movie, but it has to be a bit more daunting to the writers who have to compete with the memory of the film they're adapting. It's impossible for anyone familiar with the source material to avoid comparisons, and hard for a viewer to judge the new piece as a work of its own. Maybe some time simply must pass and the new piece has to develop its own life and following. This first national tour (and second company) of The Color Purple may be an important step in viewing the show on its own merits.
Michelle Williams (center left) and Jeannette Bayardelle (center right)
and the Company
Though New York critics and award committees were mixed in their reaction to it, The Color Purple is, I would contend, a significant musical drama. Marsha Norman's book presents five well-realized and intriguing characters: the incredibly abused but ultimately triumphant Celie; the singer Shug Avery who knows how to use sex as a source of feminine power; the defiant Sofia; Celie's abusive common-law husband "Mister"; and Harpo, the amiable son of Mister and pliant husband of Sofia. If the musical theatre genre doesn't allow the depiction of these characters in as much detail as the novel or film, it establishes them fully enough that their stories, not just the entertainment values of the songs and dances that help tell these stories, are a reason for experiencing this piece.
The score by pop songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray succeeds in bringing a fresh pop sensibility to theatre music while working in musical theater terms. It also, though written by three different composers and covering genres including blues, gospel and jazz, feels unified. The songwriters have avoided the temptation to focus too heavily on pop hits that could be extracted from the show, and they have musicalized scenes and dialogue. Even the few extractable songs help to establish character, and the emotions they amplify are well-earned by Ms. Norman's script.
The writers soften Celie's abuse in favor of giving more stage time to secondary characters and their community. This is a choice that may makes the piece more palatable to audiences by allowing more humor and irony, but it's also defensible on the grounds that it expands the portrayal of a certain time and place in history.
As the rest of the country gets an opportunity to see this cast perform The Color Purple, Director Gary Griffin and the show's producers will be giving these audiences a production and cast equal, if not better, in quality to the original Broadway cast. Chicago-based Griffin has again, as he did on Broadway, directed strong performances from his cast, again displaying the considerable skill for interpreting characters and directing actors that he honed over his years in Chicago theater. First among the cast's "equals or better" among the leads is Felicia P. Fields, repeating her Tony-nominated performance as Sofia. After hundreds of performances, she knows exactly where her laughs and "you go girl"-inducing lines land and seems not to have tired of them a bit. Jeanette Bayardelle, who understudied and eventually replaced LaChanze on Broadway, repeats her duties here in the lead role of Celie and ably handles the demands of this difficult part. I found her stronger as the younger Celie and less believable in her aging over 40 years, but she has no trouble carrying the show and is a knockout in her 11:00 number "I'm Here."
Some star power is provided by Michelle Williams, formerly of the singing group Destiny's Child, who brings her experience in exuding a sexy chanteuse's persona to the role of Shug Avery. Ms. Williams felt to me a little young for the part in her early scenes, but amazingly was entirely convincing as her character aged into her fifties. Additional celebrity is provided by "American Idol" finalist LaToya London, who sings and acts beautifully as Celie's sister Nettie. Rufus Bonds, Jr. is stunning as Mister, handling the transition from abusive younger husband to defeated but redeemed old man and bringing down the house in "Celie's Curse." The sexy and appealing Stu James easily holds his own as Harpo opposite the formidable Ms. Fields.
This production may be in better shape than a Broadway opening night cast in the energy and precision of its company as well as the strength of its principals. Their vocals are solid and they execute the athletic dances of Donald Byrd with the confidence of a troupe that has mastered but yet not tired of the moves. There's been no compromising of production values, either. The purple-tinged pastoral set designed by John Lee Beatty is intact as are the costumes of Paul Tazewell that stunningly recreate not only the dress of rural African-Americans but also of Native Africans, in the act two opener "African Homeland."
As this company tours America, and regional and school productions eventually open, The Color Purple may be able to shed the baggage of comparison to its source material and develop a reputation as an important musical. It will certainly bring readers back to Alice Walker's novel and Steven Spielberg's film, where they can explore the lives of these characters in more detail.
The Color Purple is currently scheduled to play through July 22, 2007 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There will be a 7:30 p.m. performance on Sundays June 3, June 17; and July 1, 8, 15 and 22. There will be no 2 p.m. performances on Wednesdays May 30. June 13 and 27, and July 4. There will be a 2 p.m. matinee on Thursday, July 5. There will be no 7:30 p.m. performance on Tuesday July 3. For ticket inquiries, call Ticketmaster at 312-902-1400, visit www.ticketmaster.com, any Ticketmaster center, or one of the Broadway in Chicago box offices: 151 W. Randolph, 24 W. Randolph or 18 W. Monroe St.