When the national tour of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple came to Cincinnati in April 2008, I was surprised it wasn't playing longer than the standard two-week run that other subscription shows typically have. With a large local African-American audience (the show's obvious target audience) that could have likely filled the extra weeks, the opportunity was ripe for the taking. Instead, Cincinnati now gets a return engagement of the show less than eighteen months later. The difference is that the musical isn't the hot commodity it was then, and having also played nearby Dayton in the interim, ticket sales aren't going to be selling like they would have been earlier. However, with many top performers returning from the previous tour stop, and the addition of an excellent new lead, Kenita R. Miller, there's tons of talent onstage and the show remains a huge crowd pleaser (despite some flaws in 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 stepfather. 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 major 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 and moving 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.
Many of the supporting leads were seen here last year as well. Angela Robinson continues to bring the sass and sex appeal required as Shug, and she handles some of the show's best songs with great skill. Felicia Fields was nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal of Sophia in the original New York production and recreates the role here in winning style, capturing the humor of the role excellently. Latoya London of "American Idol" fame is again a sweet and appealing Nettie and delivers wonderful vocals. Rufus Bonds, Jr. is appropriately menacing as Mister but also makes the most out of the humor in the characters toward the end of the piece. The entire cast does their best to bring energy to the piece, and the dancing throughout is athletically executed.
The new performers are likewise capable, and none more so than Kenita R. Miller, who turns in a star performance as Celie. Though physically a tiny woman, Ms. Miller delivers powerhouse vocals and is a sympathetic, feisty and emotional central performer, providing a wonderful foundation for the rest of the cast. Stu James is solid and effective as Harpo, and Tiffany Daniels does well in the underwritten role of Squeak.
Director Gary Griffin handles the transitions and blocking smoothly, and the tone remains appropriate throughout, though there's little subtlety to be found. The choreography by Donald Byrd is energetic 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 Paul Tazewell's attractive costumes assist with showing the passage of time and the time periods associated with the story.
Though we just saw the national tour of The Color Purple last year, anyone who either missed it then or wants to revisit it this time around won't be disappointed with an excellent cast on board. The show continues in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center through October 4, 2009. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.