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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Color Purple Shines Through at the Paramount

The Color Purple
Felicia P. Fields and Stu James
As national tours of Broadway musicals go, I can unequivocally state that The Color Purple is easily the equal of the production that ran two successful seasons on Broadway. With uniformly fine performances under the able direction of original helmer Gary Griffin, a smashing production design, and a story that is beloved of many from Alice Walker's mega-successful novel and Steven Spielberg's popular film adaptation, the show resonated strongly with the opening night audience in Seattle. Indeed, the story is so strong, its characters so vivid, that it matters little that Marsha Norman's book is a merely adequate condensation of the Walker book, and the musical score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray is rarely memorable, and frequently seems to slow down the forward thrust of the tale.

Walker's heroine Celie is a plain, gawky, southern black young woman whose only early attachment is to her beloved sister Nettie and the two babies she has from what she thinks is a forced, incestuous relationship with her father. The man gives Celie's children away, and ties Celie to an unfortunate marriage with the older, abusive Mister, who had coveted Nettie. Celie's ties to Nettie are severed after Mister tries to make a move on the girl, and Celie is kept from even reading Nettie's letters for many years. Forced to rear Mister's children from his first marriage, Celie accepts her fate as a non-entity to her husband, but ultimately Mister's son, and his force of nature and big as a house bride Sofia, become her allies, and in a more personal way so does saloon singer Shug Avery, Mister's mistress, who gradually becomes the great love of Celie's life, quite unbeknownst to Mister. After many years, Shug discovers that Mister has kept all of Nettie's letters, and gives them to Celie, who discovers Nettie and Celie's long lost children have long been in Africa. Many other plot strands come into play, but the most important are Celie's escape from Mister's home, her success as a maker of "Folks pants," and her ultimately being reunited with Nettie and her own children, thanks to Mister finally doing right by her.

Anyone seeing The Color Purple without having read the book or seen the film would be lost at many moments watching the musical, but odds are they are in the minority of those in attendance. Jeanette Bayardelle as Celie handles her character arc from victim to victor with grace and believability, and the rich, full voice of this gospel recording artist is a joy to experience. From the tender lullaby "Somebody Gonna Love You" to the searing duet "What About Love?" with Shug to the near closing emotional explosion of "I'm Here," Bayardelle honors Walker's character and claims the role as her own, even with the memory such formidable Celies as Whoopi Goldberg in the film and Tony Winner LaChanze on Broadway. Recreating her own Tony-nominated turn as Sofia, Felicia P. Fields holds the audience in the palm of her hand with her explosive comic delivery, and touches the soul as she charts Sofia's return from being beaten down and forced to act as a maid to the Mayor's wife, to recovering her full measure of sass and spirit. Her rendition of "Hell No!" is the first truly rafter-raising musical moment of the evening, and she has wonderful chemistry with the handsome and talented Stu James as her husband Harpo, the pair offering up a delightful comic duet "Any Little Thing" late in act two.

Rufus Bonds, Jr. as Mister defies the cardboard limitations of the role and makes an audience care about him, despite his heinous treatment of Celie, and he displays a fine vocal instrument in his big solo, "Celie's Curse." Angela Robinson is alluringly sensual as Shug, the magnetic woman beloved of both Celie and Mister, and can sizzle through the sultry "Push Da Button," or break the heart with the title song, both to equal effect. La Toya London is warmly appealing as Nettie, Stephanie St. James is diverting as Squeak, and the trio of full-throated Church Ladies who serve as a pseudo-Greek chorus of town gossips are vivaciously portrayed by Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Lynette Dupree.

Choreographer Donald Byrd creates fluid and varied movement throughout, and fills the "African Homeland" sequences with some dazzling touches, even if it does wear on a bit too long. John Lee Beatty's scenic design is among the most arrestingly beautiful and satisfying created for a large scale musical in recent years, and Brian MacDevitt's lighting design is a triumph of rich color, warm shadows and ingenuity. Paul Tazewell's costumes are a feast for the eyes and illustrate the passages of time in the story perfectly. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations are as far removed from his Sondheim show modes as could be, but just as wonderful.

It doesn't take a leap of faith to believe that the stirring messages of hope and triumph born of tenacity and faith found in The Color Purple will translate into a lot of the color green coming into the Paramount box office the next few weeks.

The national tour of The Color Purple runs through December 28, 2008 at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine Street, downtown Seattle. Special half-price tickets are available for performances on December 24 and 25. For more information visit BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com, or Paramount.com.


Photo: Paul Kolnik



- David Edward Hughes



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