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Back to The Color Purple
Reviews by Rob Lester

Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" first touched our hearts as a successful book, then as a movie with a strong soundtrack (I still have the LP set actually produced on purple-colored vinyl), then as the musical that debuted in the U.S. south where it's set, before coming to Broadway, with a recent celebrated London production that triggered this return to the new York stage and another cast album.


Broadway Records

It really doesn't seem like such a very long time ago that I listened to and wrote about the original Broadway cast CD of the first mounting of The Color Purple. Many cast albums have filled my ears and filled my shelves since then, but in hearing this version the struggles, despair, hope in dark times, and life force of the piece still impacted me in an often visceral way. The performances of this new cast are committed and involving. I prefer this version. It feels more nuanced and less forcefully "in your face," without skirting the drama and tension. Less brash, the numbers don't "push" quite as much for declamations and j'accuse moments.

Performances are more calibrated, more scaled down to human size instead of epic ancient Greek tragedy proportions the original version sometimes seemed to be aiming for. Oh, don't get me wrong—the sections with the abusive men are still harrowing and chilling, but perhaps even more so when some of the female roles feel warmer and more vulnerable as they do here.

Cynthia Erivo in the central role of Celie sings with a lovely and truly youthful tone in the early sections that makes her instantly ingratiating and sweet. Her early brief lullaby "Somebody Gonna Love You" economically establishes her endearing grace and heroine-worthy status. Perhaps even more important in the audio-only exposure should you not be wrapped up in or especially familiar with the plot (synopsized in the accompanying booklet), it's a short shot of soothing nirvana for your ears. Without coming across as exactly fragile or limp, the tender-hearted girlishness is established. So, it is all the more dramatic and striking when Celie is thrown into a harsh new life of work, with demeaning treatment by her assigned husband, called Mister (in the almost unblinking brutality voiced by the formidable Isaiah Johnson). Miss Erivo's character arc in the story is impressively demonstrated in the changing sounds and increasingly assured persona she presents. Changing from when we first see her as a playful but bewildered 14-year-old girl who is pregnant for the second time until the end of the show when those children she gave birth to are older than she was in that opening scene, we see the gradual progression and maturation reflected in how her acting colors her vocalizing. She believably goes through doubts about God as well as a lack of faith in other people, experiences the eye-opening steps of feeling genuine love and becoming emboldened and embittered. Her hope and faith ebb and flow with a pulse that make the Erivo dynamics the central force and heart of the show. Nothing else, no matter how showy or dashing, ultimately upstages that or can long compete for our loyalties, at least as I hear it as a CD-listening experience.

Second-billed high profile Jennifer Hudson, playing the dazzling entertainer Shug Avery, brings a forceful musical presence that doesn't have the same layers of depth or richness. Her splashy "Push da Button" showpiece feels less like a slinky, sexy heat wave and more like crassly overheated, overextended attempts to drum up lusty leering and cheering by the raucous, encouraging others in noisy attendance. But when the Hudson and Erivo voices blend on the piece's main jewel, "What About Love?," it's truly sublime. Although not as gloriously, the Jennifer Hudson star quality sends some serious illumination through "Too Beautiful for Words" and the first version of the title song of this score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray.

While Danielle Brooks makes for a forceful Sofia, she and the other main characters don't get as much time or variety in their roles as heard on the disc to seem as three-dimensional, though they can be entertaining and functionally effective in their more limited ways. And, compared to the earlier cast, The Color Purple has more varied vocal colors this time. Also notable is the difference in the orchestral colors and size. While the 2005 cast album had 11 string players added to the 18 members actually playing in the theatre then, this recording has a grand total of just eight musicians. It's a decidedly less lush and multi-faceted affair without the masterful touches of the work of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick on the older recording. Joseph Joubert, keyboardist/associate conductor on that version was credited with "additional orchestrations" then, and now he is listed as the main orchestrator.

Unlike the first recording, this one's packaging includes the lyrics. Seeing them in print does perhaps bring more attention to the inconsistent use of true rhymes by these pop music-schooled writers and the manners of speech by these black characters in the story set mostly in Georgia in the first half of the 20th century. There's more spoken material than I'd want and I'd have preferred more of it trimmed from this especially lengthy single disc, so we could move from song to song more quickly. Examples of the speech:

From spoken sections: "Is it true her Daddy the preacher? Only he don't speak to her no more on account of her having all them babies ..."; "Us never seen anything as beautiful ..."; "Look like Nettie and the kids run into some trouble." From the song "Shug Avery Comin' to Town" (an example of where the chorus of busybody church ladies who are even more delightful in this version, as their gossip and judgmental attitudes are played with a lighter, more playful air): "Lock up all yo mens ... That Mister sho' do shine ..." and in two numbers, they chant "Who dis? Look at/ Who dat?..." And in the finale version of the title song, a group in unison bad grammar cries out proudly, "There are miracles for you and I!"

These Southern characters speak with distinctive dialects and speech patterns, with their grammar often at odds with more "proper" standard English. One listener may be intrigued by this as charming and distinctively flavorful, while another may be bothered. The latter group may be the kind who'd also be put off by the thick cockney accents or clipped, ultra-erudite manners in British musicals. The actors make it all flow and don't sound studied, and the words printed in the booklet make worries about mis-hearing or not catching something a non-issue. But here are some samples of how the character speak: There are many scattered lines and excerpts from letters from the script by Marsha Norman, who gets a page for reflections on seeing how director/set designer John Doyle rethought the piece for the small-stage London Menier Chocolate Factory and then brought a production back to Broadway.

The powerful Purple prose and searing or soaring score keeps us mindful of the heavy burdens and sorrows that some bear before hope and redemption come through in the third act of their lives.

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