Regional Reviews: New Jersey
National Tour of The Color Purple Arrives in Fine Fettle
Also see Bob's review of Two Jews Walk Into a War ...
Whatever the literary and artistic merits of the original novel, the musical is a ripe, sexually explicit melodrama with all the pleasures of women's fiction. Add the lively, entertaining, if generic, music which cuts across any number of popular styles, a strong, lively and dedicated cast, and more than its fair share of solid humor rooted in plot and character, and you have a rousing, involving musical entertainment.
The story covers a period of forty years, from 1909 to 1949, although projecting a clear time frame is not one of the musical's strengths. It is only when music and clothing styles are brought into the forefront as the story rushes to its climax that we are made aware of the time frame of the story and that most of the music has not defined the earlier periods of it. Set largely in rural Georgia, The Color Purple introduces us to its main protagonist Celie when she is fourteen years old and pregnant for the second time with the child of the man whom she knows as her father. She is shortly thereafter forced by her father to marry Mister, a cruel farmer who beats and abuses her. Celie achieves emotional and intellectual growth, eventually prospering with the help of a large number of admirable, clearly defined women who enliven the stage with their bravery, humanity and talent. It is delightful to watch the performing skills of the featured cast and the strength and humor of the Alice Walker characters whom they portray (transformed to stage life by playwright Marsha Norman) together form their on-stage personae.
Under the direction of Gary Griffin, the performances are vivid and dynamic. Kenita R. Miller (one of Broadway's Celies) brings a sparkle and sense of inner strength to Celie even when her only determination is to yield to the abuses of Mister. She is convincing whether playing fourteen or fifty. Miller brings both musical and dramatic heft to "What About Love?," her duet with Shug Avery, her husband's mistress, sung when the two women fall in love. In entering into this relationship, Celie begins her transformation from a woman who embraces her fate to one who is master of it.
The richness of the performances of Angela Robinson (Shug), Felicia P. Fields (Sofia), La Toya London (Nettie), Felicia P. Fields (Squeak) and Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Lynette DuPree (the three church ladies) attest to the excellence of this company. There is power in the meanness of the portrayals of Rufus Bonds, Jr. (Mister) and David Aron Damane (Pa), and complexity in the essential sweetness of Stu James (Harpo). Donald Byrd's limited choreography is lively and generic. The reduced for touring version of the sets by John Lee Beatty is fully satisfactory and at times beautiful and evocative. Paul Tazewell's costumes add much flavor to the proceedings, particularly in the African sequence and the 1940s era.
The novel on which this musical is based is largely epistolary with letters written by Celie constituting its greatest part. As we enter the theatre, we see her first letter projected on the curtain. It is a striking example of how a good writer makes one character's very specific situation extend to illuminate all of our lives. It reads, "Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me." If you have never sought such an answer, you have lived either an unusually charmed or unexamined life.
I would hazard a guess that the touring The Color Purple has been pruned here and there as it now plays better than it did when it opened on Broadway. It feels less overstuffed and awkwardly cobbled together. While it lacks the brilliance and creativity of the great American musicals, more than before, The Color Purple is an intelligent, arousing and fun filled entertainment. Given the harsh events depicted here, this musical is certainly transformative.
The Color Purple continues performances (Thursday & Sunday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8pm/ Matinees on Thursday 1:30 pm/ Saturday, Sunday 2 pm) through December 19, 2009 at NJPAC (Prudential Hall), One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online www.njpac.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.colorpurple.com.
The Color Purple book by Marsha Norman; music and lyrics by Brenda Russell; Allee Willis; Stephen Bray