Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
The Color Purple
Alice Walker's sprawling novel is set mostly in rural Georgia between 1909 and 1949. Although she has streamlined and softened Walker's novel by eliminating some characters and plotlines, Marsha Norman's not entirely unwieldy book for the musical makes a conscientious and reasonably successful effort to include a great deal of the novel's characters, plot details, and, most importantly, thematic elements.
At the start, 14-year-old Celie (Adrianna Hicks) gives birth to a son, her second child, conceived with her abominable father, Alphonso. He forces her, for the second time, to give up her child. Shortly, thereafter, Alphonso forces her to marry the widower known by the appellation Mister (Gavin Gregory), a farmer who wants her to be a workhorse, and beats her. The abuse of both Alphonso and Mister drives Celie's younger sister, the determined to be educated Nettie (N'Jameh Camara), to flee Georgia.
Celie's growing inner strength and intelligence are armored by her faith in God. She makes common cause with other strong women who bravely resist subjugation. There is the fiery Sofia (Carrie Compere), who, at whatever cost, will not tolerate abuse, be it inflicted by her man and Alphonso's son, Harpo (Jay Donnell), or racist authorities. Central to Celie's self-realization is her recognition and embrace of her sexuality in her love for Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), an independent "juke joint" singer. It is these women's difficult and inspirational journeys, along with those of Celie which involve, rouse, and move us.
With the addition of an effective, accessible, well-arranged score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) drawing on gospel, traditional, Southern, African, swing, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and anthemic musical forms, and the full-throated, strong voices and powerful, empathic performances of a solidly talented cast, John Doyle's stripped down reenvisioning of The Color Purple will satisfy many viewersparticularly, theatergoers who have not seen the original Broadway production.
However, be aware that Doyle has taken an evocative, emotionally resonant, heartrending and heartwarming, richly entertaining full-bodied Broadway musical and removed much of the fiber provided by dialogue, background and detail, leaving us with a reduced and reductive concert version. Too often, the actors sing directly to the audience, further distancing us from the sense of life and drama in a musical that has always been somewhat presentational.
The first eye-pleasing color to be seen is provided by large African-patterned cloth in the first scene of act two. Midway through the second act, we are treated to attractive, boldly solid-colored pants during the evening's liveliest staged, most enjoyable song presentation, "Miss Celie's Pants."
The drab scenery (designed by Doyle) consists of walkways and platforms and three separate large panels made up of variously shaped, broken wooden slats each festooned with hanging wooden chairs. The background is an enervating black. Much of the staging involves the moving of chairs by the cast. Although their movement is sometimes intriguingly choreographed, the frequent, extensive moving of chairs is very distracting and distancing. At one point, I thought that the cast appeared to have been employed as much to be stagehands as to be performers. Eventually, I found myself wanting to scream, "Stop moving the effing chairs".
The Color Purple, through October 21, 2018, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.