The musical adaptation of The Color Purple recently ended its Broadway run, and a movie of the musical version is planned for a few years from now. In the meanwhile, the national tour crisscrosses the country, and can currently be seen for a few weeks at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. As on Broadway, the show is a crowd pleaser and has some extremely talented performers involved, but it isn't free of its share of problems in thanks to the material itself.
The Color Purple is based on the novel by Alice Walker and the film directed by Steven Spielberg of the same name. The story follows the forty year journey of Celie, starting when she's a pregnant (for the second time) 14-year-old, due to being repeatedly raped by her step-father. Celie's faith is tested over and over again by a number of horrible events and circumstances. Her babies are taken away from her, she's forced to marry an abusive older man, she's separated from her sister and betrayed by the only love of her life. Still, she perseveres the best that she can, with her dignity and trust in God intact.
The book for the musical by Marsha Norman (Secret Garden) has its pros and cons. Despite being a bit episodic, the characters and events are presented clearly, and a trio of nosey townsfolk women (serving as a Greek chorus) provides narration and exposition that fills in the back story sufficiently. Ms. Norman also does well in capturing the emotions, drama and humor of the tale. However, having to fit in all the songs (which take up more time than dialogue) results in some plot points being rushed or barely touched upon rather than deeply explored. Also, the motivations and development of some characters are too shallow. One shining example is the transformation of Celie's husband Mister from selfish brute to well-meaning do-gooder. The change happens too quickly, and without a foundation of support within the show, to make it seem believable. Still, an emotionally powerful ending brings the show to a dramatic close.
The score is likewise a mixed bag. A number of songs are first rate, especially those that rise naturally from the story and advance the plot. "Our Prayer" (in which young Celie and her sister Nettie talk about the future), "Too Beautiful For Words," "What About Love" (an attractive duet for Celie and Shug), and Celie's big eleven o'clock number "I'm Here" are song highlights. However, too often the score, in both music and lyrics, settles for style over substance. The gospel and blues infused tunes and often repeated words written by the trio of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray sound more like pop songs than theater songs.
The national tour boasts a strong cast. Understudy LaTonya Holmes is playing Celie for the entire Cincinnati run. She is a sympathetic and moving Celie and sings sweetly. Ms. Holmes also convincingly ages and moves from a meek and broken victim to a strong, independent survivor. Angela Robinson brings the sass and sex appeal required as Shug, and handles some of the show's best songs with great skill. Felicia Fields, who originated the role of Sophie in the original Broadway cast (and garnered a Tony nomination), recreates the role here in winning style and captures the humor of the role excellently. Latoya London of "American Idol" fame is a sweet and appealing Nettie and delivers wonderful vocals. Stephanie St. James makes the most of the underwritten Squeak, and understudy (on opening night) Lesly Terrell Donald is a capable stand-in as Harpo. Rufus Bonds, Jr. is appropriately menacing as Mister. The entire cast does their best to bring energy to the piece, and the dancing throughout is athletically executed.
Director Gary Griffin handles the transitions and blocking of the show smoothly, and the tone remains appropriate throughout. However, there's little subtlety to be found, which is surprising, considering some of Mr. Griffin's previous work. The choreography by Donald Byrd is apt and pleasing to the eye, and Sheilah Walker capably leads a talented pit band.
The set design by John Lee Beatty is more abstract than most Broadway shows, but it is attractive and fits the setting well. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt is mood enhancing, and the Paul Tazewell's costumes assist with showing the passage of time and the time periods associated with the story. Unfortunately, there were sound issues (both volume and clarity) on opening night which kept much of the crowd from fully comprehending many of the lyrics.
As with New York and other stops for the show, The Color Purple tends to bring a large African-American audience to the theater, and this added diversity is welcome. The national tour showcases a wealth of talent, and the show is indeed a crowd-pleaser despite its shortcomings in the book and score departments. The show continues in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center through April 27, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.