Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 17, 2007
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 Fantasia, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Chaz Lamar Shepherd, Darlesia Cearcy, Krisha Marcano, and Alton Fitzgerald White, with Charlotte Crossley, Rosena M. Hill, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Larry Marshall, Carol Dennis, Shelby Braxton-Brooks, Deidra H. Brooks, Eric L. Christian, LaTrisa A. Coleman, Ruby E. Crawford, Bobby Daye, Doug Eskew, Montego Glover, Charles Gray, Gavin Gregory, Stephanie Guiland-Brown, James Harkness, Ashley Reneé Jordan, Kenya Unique Massey, Marla McReynolds, Jenny Mollet, JC Montgomery, Angela Robinson, Kemba Shannon, Levensky Smith, Ricky Smith, Teresa Stanley, Jamal Story, Daniel J. Watts, Yolanda Watts.
Fantasia is fantastic.
But if the words have now escaped into the world, the memory of what inspired them will linger for decades to come. For the monumental Broadway debut currently in progress at the Broadway doesn’t just transform the winner of season three of American Idol into the most capable, most assured, most innately gifted new stage star to appear in years. It’s also effected a metamorphosis on an entire musical that last year ranked a solid “can miss,” but is now an emphatic “must see.”
No change so complete has occurred in my theatregoing experience, never has a show that started as at best a lumbering bore become an energetic, vivifying tribute to life and theatricality just by obtaining a new star. Some will point Jonathan Pryce’s recent stint in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, still others to country star Reba McEntire’s replacing Bernadette Peters in the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. But neither was well served: Pryce was suave but out of control, and McEntire was out of her element, singing twangily but bearing at best rudimentary acting skills.
I expected as much of Fantasia here, unsure how anyone so young (she’s 22) and so inexperienced could carry this all-singing, all-hulking adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel when the production’s original lead, LaChanze, a bona-fide theatre star, could not. It seemed a given that Marsha Norman’s hit-and-run book and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray’s pop-slop score were designed to sink anyone who dared step into the central role of Celie.
But it didn’t take Fantasia long to not only shatter memories of LaChanze, but completely upend the idea that this was a show from which no drama could be drawn. Fantasia’s raw, unfinished quality and rough-hewn features quickly proved perfect for Celie in ways that LaChanze’s gleaming, beaming refinement and carefully preserved beauty never could be. A victim of her father’s sexual abuse who’s married off to a man named Mister who treats her only marginally better, Celie is a woman who’s known pain and looks it. As Fantasia plays her, she is determined to never know it again.
As such, you are never once aware of Fantasia as a singer known first and foremost from a blockbuster television series. She’s utterly unrecognizable here, from forehead to foot a broken woman who can only reconstruct herself through humanity, hope, and perseverance. She loses more than a few dreams along the way, but eventually realizes she possesses the potential to make herself into her own ideal. When this revelation explodes late in the second act into a solipsistic empowerment anthem called “I’m Here,” you’ve so accepted her, believed in her, and even prayed for her at each stage of her development that her triumph over her own self-doubt, as filtered through that go-for-broke voice, is nothing short of electrifying.
The audience reaction to this number at the performance I attended recalled the fabled screams of ecstasy so often attributed to Jennifer Holliday’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going” in the first production of Dreamgirls. I can’t say it was unwarranted. Nor can I say that Fantasia’s American Idol season-mate Jennifer Hudson, who played Holliday’s role in last year’s Dreamgirls film and won an Oscar for it, brought to it even half the confidence and emotional clarity Fantasia does to Celie here.
But this story is powered by its Celie, and Fantasia’s natural resources for assuming command far outstrip the gigawatt smile that was LaChanze’s most notable character trait. When Fantasia deigns to unleash her own, in all its toothy, to-the-rafters glory, it’s more than merely a heartening facial expression: It’s an immensely powerful connection to a hardened soul beginning to crack and gradually reveal its inner softness. It may be a simple physical matter to most of us, but it’s something Celie is only able to learn at great personal and emotional cost.
The actress playing her, though, doesn’t need to learn anything. From how she carries herself onstage to how she imbues every moment with half a dozen contradictory emotions to how she holds together a show that can all too easily fall apart even with a gifted star, Fantasia looks, acts, and sings like she’s been doing this her whole life. And if she should decide to spend the rest of her life onstage, the pop world’s loss will be the theatre’s incalculable gain.