Regional Reviews: Chicago
One has to wonder if the producers have fallen down a rabbit hole in booking the show in this venue. Doyle's original stripped-down concept, with virtually no scenery and a cast of just 17 (as opposed to the original Broadway production's 28), was conceived for a tiny venue like the Menier. Can it play in such a big house? The answer is yes, but maybe not as well as in a smaller one.
This national tour of the Broadway revival has a cast that can fill the Auditorium with their sound (cleanly amplified by sound designer Dan Moses Schreier and associate sound designer Josh Reid) and their big, emotionally-charged performances. The performers' names aren't likely to be familiar, but several of them had smaller roles or were swings in Doyle's Broadway production.
Playing Celie is Adrianna Hicks, who understudied that part on Broadway. She gives the role of the sexually and physically abused woman a strength throughout that makes her eventual assertiveness entirely plausible. Like the entire cast, she has a powerful set of pipes and the acting skill to go with it. The audience I attended with was rapt in complete silence during Hicks's 11 o'clock solo "I'm Here" before bursting into rapturous applause at its conclusion. Carla R. Stewart, who audiences may remember from the Whoopi Goldberg role in the national tour of Ghost, brings a ton of charisma to the role of Shug Avery, who on her visits to the Georgia farming community is the most glamorous woman in town. Carrie Compere, the Broadway revival's Olivia and Church Lady, has been elevated to the always scene-stealing role of Sofiaknocking out the audience with every "Hell, no!" she speaks or sings. Gavin Gregory, a standby for Crown in the recent Broadway production of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, is a surprisingly un-threatening Mister, but he fills the monstrous Auditorium with his "Celie's Curse."
Hearing this cast and the eight-member orchestra deliver the alternately complex and accessible score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray in such a grand, historic venue, one can be convinced of The Color Purple as a significant piece of musical theater. And Doyle's vision, smart and expertly realized, is a valid way to present it. His set of rough-hewn wood holding wooden chairs on an upstage flat prepares us for the ingenious ways he'll use chairs as nearly the only props. The ensemble, when they witness action downstage from their upstage positions, extend the idea of the Greek chorus suggested by the script's three clucking church ladies. Without traditional realistic flats to move between scenes, Doyle's version gives the musical a cinematic fluidity that helps to move the story along.
But there are disadvantages to Doyle's take. The characters originally seen in Alice Walker's novel are the product of their very specific time and placerural Georgia from 1909 to the 1930s. They are very much a community and while the smallish ensemble reinforces that to a degree, the dearth of scenic elements to tell us where we are fights our entirely getting a sense of the locale that is such an important part of the story. And Doyle's highly theatrical, presentational concept is frequently so slick as to take us out of the story.
Hence the "maybe" in answering the question of whether or not the producers and presenters erred in booking this show into a 3900-seat theater. I wonder if a more intimate setting might have allowed it to better move me emotionally. Even from good seats some 20 rows from the stage, I felt a certain detachment: aware of the artistry on display, but not completely invested in its painful but ultimately triumphant story. Even so, this is a production worth seeing for its superlative cast.
The Color Purple, through July 28, 2018, at Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway, Chicago IL. For tickets and additional information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000.