The Color Purple Based upon the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture. Book by Marsha Norman. Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choeographed by Donald Byrd. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Starring LaChanze, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, Felicia P. Fields, Brandon Victor Dixon, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Krisha Marcano, and Kingsley Leggs, with Kimberly Ann Harris, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Virginia Ann Woodruff, Lou Myers, Carol Dennis, Jeannette I. Bayardelle, James Brown III, Eric L. Christian, LaTrisa A. Coleman, Bobby Daye, Anika Ellis, Doug Eskew, Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, Zipporah G. Gatling, Charles Gray, Stephanie Guiland-Brown, James Harkness, Francesca Harper, Chantylla Johnson, Grasan Kingsberry, Corinne McFarlane, Kenita R. Miller, JC Montgomery, Angela Robinson, Nathaniel Stampley, Jamal Story, Leon G. Thomas III.
Like a paint-by-numbers portrait missing its pigment guide, the new musical The Color Purple is a staid outline of a show more notable for what it lacks than what it contains. A true artist should have taken a brush stroke or two (if not a bucket of primer) to the sorry spectacle that just opened at the Broadway, but that old axiom about washing garbage generally goes for painting it, too.
For despite the layers of high-gloss slathered over everything in sight, not a moment passes in this wayworn adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that you're not keenly aware that everything has been done better before. A black musical that opens with a spirited gospel rouser? Encores! did Purlie earlier this year. A showcase vehicle for the boundless talents of the beauteous LaChanze? Once On This Island opened at the Booth 15 years ago. An American exploration of racial and social identity unfolding over several turbulent decades? Try Show Boat, 1927.
Not that there's anything wrong with standing on others' shoulders - the greatest musical theatre talents always have, and continue to do so today. But the authors of The Color Purple - Marsha Norman (book), and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray (music and lyrics) - haven't learned from anyone what's necessary to make this story work. Sadly, that includes Walker, whose work remains but in scant remnants scattered throughout Gary Griffin's production.
True, the 1985 film of Walker's novel is itself no great shakes, even with an impressive cast led by Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey. But with an authentic atmosphere befitting its Georgia setting and a staunch sense of purpose, the movie did find wide-ranging importance in the story of Celie, a black woman who suffers indignities ranging from incest to spousal abuse before finally learning to unlock her own hidden potential and capacity to love.
As conceived here, Celie (LaChanze) is at best an indomitably spunky young woman who can never repair herself because she never breaks. After losing her children (fathered by her father) at a tender age, entering into a loveless marriage with the nasty Mister (Kingsley Leggs), and losing contact with her beloved sister Nettie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), she determinedly soldiers on. Why? Well, because she's the musical's heroine; this show's authors neither require nor supply any additional reason.
But without making clear what compels Celie, the authors dilute the impact of her personal triumphs and gradual integration into the human race she spends much of her life isolated from. Even the side story of Mister's son Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon) and his steel-spirited wife Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), which amplifies and helps shatter Celie's submissive nature, feels here like little more than an excrescent comic subplot being used to pump laughs into a show for which levity doesn't come naturally.
To her credit, Fields fulfills her obligations and then some: She ignites her scenes with a fiery comic vigor that's as ideal a stage equivalent to Winfrey's film performance as we could hope for. She makes Sofia's arc from willful to battered and back again a vital cornerstone in the play's drama, but such a towering presence in such a small role only underscores what LaChanze and the writers can't bring to the central Celie. When you find yourself praying that the comic will take over from the dramatic lead, something's desperately amiss.
But a certain cluelessness pervades almost every aspect of the show. The first big number, "Mysterious Ways," needs more revival-meeting fervor if it's to jump-start the show with energy instead of plot. (It prominently features a trio of gossipy biddies, apparently on loan from the "Pick-a-Little" chorus of a colorblind mounting of The Music Man.) Elisabeth Withers-Mendes isn't charismatic enough for the crucial role of Shug Avery, the open-hearted singer who alters the course of Celie's love life. The first act ends with one of the least surprising surprises in musical theatre history; the second act begins with an endless and frustrating African sequence that does nothing but add 20 minutes to an already bloated evening.
These are neophytes' mistakes, somewhat understandable given the songwriters' nonexistent musical theatre experience. Like Joseph Brooks, whose In My Life still limps along at the Music Box, they're pop songwriters, though Brooks's musical voice generates songs of more unique distinction than anything here. Most seem at best fragmented and unfinished, as though ripped apart and reassembled in the wrong order, with only one jaunty number (the second act's "Miss Celie's Pants") narratively satisfying. Norman, with plenty of theatre experience and awards to her credit, does better with her book, though it's little more than barely connected wisps of dialogue that lend little theatricality to a production constantly craving it.
Griffin doesn't help in that regard - he's directed a number of notable Encores! concerts in which he made entertaining somethings out of nothings, here he makes nothing from Walker's quite imposing something. The show has a look, but that's the work of the ever-reliable John Lee Beatty, whose sets are drenched in rich hues and apparently inspired by woodcuts and period postcards, and Paul Tazewell, whose provides fine period costumes. But the lights (Brian MacDevitt), orchestrations (Jonathan Tunick), musical direction (Kevin Stites), and choreography (Donald Byrd) blithely suggest the waning days of disco, with Griffin hardly dissuading them.
One can at least be thankful for the solid (if indistinct) cast, which gives its all to an essentially lost cause. Leggs, Dixon, Goldsberry, and others hold up their end of the bargain in the supporting realm, though all are overshadowed by Fields's reigning comedy. (It's impossible to shake the feeling that Winfrey, one of the show's 15 producers and a not-so-silent financial partner, probably doesn't mind.)
LaChanze, however, is an unfortunate casualty: She is, as always, irresistible, but never ideally utilized as an average-looking woman robbed of her self-esteem by some emasculating men. But she's still got that proscenium-spanning smile, which gleams so beautifully white that it lights up the theater in ways the material never allows the actress to match. It's a much-needed glimpse of the kind of vibrant color that - Oprah's green notwithstanding - is so absent here that it's enough to make you feel blue, if not see red.