Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The story takes place over four decades and is set mostly in Georgia in the first half of the 20th century. The plot follows a young black woman called Celie, whom we first meet when she is 14 and pregnant with her second child. Celie is called "ugly" by Mr. Johnson, or "Mister" as Celie calls him, the older man who marries her, even though he'd much prefer to have Celie's sweet younger sister Nettie in his bed. Mister torments Celie and expects her to wait on him and his children. He also sends Nettie away once she refuses his advances. The sad and alone Celie feels like her family and her God have abandoned her and it is only through the close friendships of two women who come into her life, Sofia and Shug Avery, that she builds the strength to overcome the obstacles that life has presented her, to realize that she is beautiful, and to find forgiveness against those who have done her wrong.
Walker's novel was a huge hit and won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. It touches upon a series of relevant, historical social issues, including racial and spousal violence, and the fair treatment of women. When the book first debuted in 1982 it was only shortly after the collapse of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have given equal rights to all Americans regardless of sex. While the women's movement and the rights of minorities have advanced in the past 35 years, there is still an abundance of racial bias and violence and inappropriate use of power against women. With the recent explosion of the #metoo movement, and what seems like a never ending stream of news reports where African Americans are treated unequally by authority figures, the timing of this musical has a newfound resonance.
The combination of Marsha Norman's book and the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray helps to portray the journey that Celie takes. However, the score, which is a mostly forgettable combination of gospel, blues and jazz, and the book, which includes very little dialogue and isn't much more than a series of strung together scenes that hit the major plot points of the novel, leave much to be desired in giving clarity to both the changing time periods and some of the development of the people in Celie's life.
Director John Doyle's scaled down production uses just a small cast of 17 and one static set to portray the many characters and locations of the story. The lack of set doesn't help at all in determining the location or period of the scenes, though the starkness of Doyle's design mirrors the bleakness that Celie feels, and the change in Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, from tans and browns to rich colors in the second act, echoes the growth of Celie's self worth. While the book, score and set are lacking in clarity, fortunately, Doyle has ensured his actors excel in their portrayals with performances that are rich, nuanced and full of fire.
As Celie, Adrianna Hicks beautifully captures the changes and growth her character makes from the ages of 14 to her mid-50s. Hicks' portrayal begins quiet and small, then increases in power once Sofia and Shug come into her life and she finally sees her beauty and strength. The score mirrors this change with very little for Celie to sing until her explosive solo "I'm Here" in the second act, which Hicks infuses with a muscular emotion, purity and understanding.
Carla R. Stewart is superb as the free-spirited, powerful Shug Avery, who doesn't let anyone tell her what to do. Stewart plays Shug with power but also ensures there is passion and tenderness underneath Shug's steely exterior. Her "Push Da Button" is raunchy, sassy and full of fire. Carrie Compere is a firecracker as the firm, feisty and defiant Sofia, who is the first to help Celie see her inner strength and inner beauty. As Mister, Gavin Gregory brings an appropriate sense of harsh reality to the abusive man, though he also offers hope in the sympathy he finds once his character grows older. N'Jameh Camara instills a deep sense of beauty and hope in Nettie, and J. Daughtry injects an element of fun into Harpo, Mister's son and Sofia's husband. Also, the trio of Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn and Brit West are exceptional as three Church Ladies who serve as a pseudo Greek chorus throughout, as they comment and question the action of the piece.
While The Color Purple may be lacking in the areas of book and score in its adaptation for the stage, with Doyle's polished direction and an exceptional cast, the national tour of this musical hits the major points in Walker's exceptional story and is heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious yet also inspiring and uplifting.
The Color Purple, through April 22nd, 2018, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.colorpurple.com.
Book by Marsha Norman, based on Alice Walker's novel and the Amblin/Warner Brothers film