The Color Purple
Utilizing Alice Walker's novel and the subsequent feature film as primary sources, playwright Marsha Norman provides the book for the current touring show. Music and lyrics were written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Sheilah Walker conducts the fine orchestra pit musicians while Gary Griffin directs the show. Donald Byrd's choreography on a few, flying production numbers is a major asset.
This is the story of Celie (given a lovely, poignant, winning performance by Kenita R. Miller), who is a fourteen-year-old girl in Georgia as the play begins in 1909. She is abused oftenfirst by her father, Pa (David Aron Damane), and then by her husband, Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.). Celie is close to her sister, Nettie (played quite capably on opening night by understudy LaTrisa A. Harper). Nettie, wisely escaping the clutches of Pa, flees and brings with her Celie's children, Olivia and Adam.
There is also an engaging subplot involving Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), who is wildly amusing as she first threatens and then levels someone with a punch. She and Celie are close. Even more touching is the relationship Celie develops with Shug Avery (Angela Robinson). Shug sings the blues at a local club, then goes back out on the road. Shug comes and goes. More important, she is a pivotal figure for Celie, a friend forever. Shug and Celie, at the end of a long first act, combine impressively on "What About Love?"
The second portion of the production begins with a rich, extended number entitled "African Homeland." Byrd's movement as well as elaborate costuming by Paul Tazewell fuel the evocative dance scene for quite some time. "Miss Celie's Pants" follows not long thereafter and then the appealing Miller takes center stage for her own with her moving solo, "I'm Here."
Act one of The Color Purple attempts to provide exposition through scene and song. Company production renditions such as "Mysterious Ways" and "Push Da Button" are successfulto a degree. Yet, it is difficult to compress and adapt into musical genre while honoring the through line of the original fiction, which speaks so strongly of racial indignity.
The touring cast, featuring a number of individuals who starred in the show when it was on Broadway, is first rate. Miller, Fields, Robinson, Bonds, Brandon Victor Dixon (as Harpo) and others remain fresh and focused.
Every so often Church Ladies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Lynette DuPree) appear and provide humorous commentary through song. The entire production opens with an appearance Church Soloist (Carol Dennis), who soars with her vocal renditions.
The evening comes full circle near the final curtain with a sweet and expected reunion. The entire title of the presentation is The Color Purple: The Musical about Love, but this is not altogether accurate. The compassionate, warm, enduring Celie (embodied by compact, heart and soul actor, Kenita R. Miller) is at the center of the play. The character, however, is one who suffers as she loses those nearest and dearest to her. Thus, this production, to be fair, conjures up many an emotion.
The Color Purple continues at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, in Hartford, through June 14th. For tickets, visit www.bushnell.org or call the box office at (860) 987-5900. For information on the touring schedule, visit www.colorpurple.com/color_purple_tour.php.
- Fred Sokol