Regional Reviews: Boston
Regional Reviews by Matthew Small
The Color Purple
For Celie, a Southern girl merely a few generations removed from American slavery, it seems impossible to trust anyone except her beloved sister Nettie, the bright hope for progress within their family. When Nettie disappears, Celie is left to navigate the cruel world on her own, wedded to a man who doesn't attempt to show her any love or compassion. With little control over her own life or her own body, Celie is enslaved by an alarming culture of domestic violence, sexual assault and spirit-crushing patriarchy within her home and community. Celie's story is not ancient history, but a real reminder that our contemporary families are still working on these same issues.
Despite the darkness Celie experiences in life, there is certainly plenty of lighter fare weaved throughout The Color Purple. A trio of African-American songstresses, a favorite convention for modern Broadway writers (see Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, Caroline, or Change), entertains us throughout the show as the nosy, all-knowing church ladies in town. And Celie's step daughter-in-law Sofia delights us with every line she speaks and sings, a testament to some fine comedic writing paired with an unbeatable performance by Felicia P. Fields in the Tony-nominated role she created on Broadway.
The Color Purple maintains the strengths of the Broadway production in large part due to the return performances of many. Along with Fields, Brandon Victor Dixon was the original Harpo in New York. These two star-crossed lovers have grown deliciously better with time since I first saw them paired three years ago. It is a treat to witness their on-again off-again romance. Theirs is but one relationship among many with blurry boundaries in this small Georgian town.
As Celie, Kenita R. Miller transforms from a downtrodden young teenager to a confident, matronly entrepreneur in under three hours on stage. The immense pain, brought about by years of abuse, is evident on her face and ever-present in her magnificent voice. When she at last proclaims, "I'm here," it is a deeply moving experience after sharing in her epic journey.
The one musical disappointment within the cast ias Angela Robinson, who is an otherwise good choice to play Shug Avery, the local heartbreaking chanteuse. Her "Push Da Button" is one of the best songs in the score, yet Robinson's muddled delivery of clever lyrics is lost upon an audience who tries so desperately to get in on the joke. Aside from her singing, Robinson's intimate scenes with Miller offer the tenderest moments of the evening.
Adapting Alice Walker's Pultizer Prize-winning The Color Purple is a nearly impossible task assigned to dialogue writer Marsha Norman and songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. While they heartily foster the cathartic and joyful spirit of the novel, the show retains the same structural oddities from its Broadway run, particularly in the disjointed and unwieldy storytelling at the beginning of act two. It's no surprise that the odd dream sequence fantasy remains intact, as both productions were led by director Gary Griffin and choreographer Donald Byrd. Overall, their vision is clear, and the ensemble executes their plan with grace and humor.
The unbelievable singing is coupled with a luxurious orchestra under the fine direction of Sheilah Walker. We need more talented female conductors like Walker to balance out the old boys club in our theater pits (thank you, Oprah!).
John Lee Beatty's sets, Paul Tazewell's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting magically fill the cavernous Wang Theatre with spectacular colors (yes, there are plenty of rich purples) and provide a beautiful tapestry with which to perform. There are so many design elements that it must be difficult to fit this show into theaters with less wing space.
Aside from reviewing the show on stage, I can't help but note that the theater experience also includes being part of an audience. During this performance, there was a lot of unnecessary disturbance within the crowd. Scores of people arrived late and even later as the professional house staff seemed unable to usher them to seats efficiently or at appropriate junctures. In front of me, a woman was frequently sending and receiving text messages and another cell phone rang out loud (there was no pre-show reminder about electronic devices). For most of the second act, a patron directly behind me crunched on Ranch Doritos (I would know that smell anywhere) from a crinkly plastic bag. I wasn't the only one annoyed by this behavior. All of this made it hard to focus on the stage at times.
No matter the structural and audience issues, the dynamic ensemble's performances win out. I highly recommend The Color Purple, a transformative and entertaining evening of musical theater. For tickets and information, call 866-348-9738 or visit http://www.citicenter.org. Or avoid the extra fees by stopping by the box office at 270 Tremont Street. Matthew Small