Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 10, 2015
The Menier Chocolate Factory Production of The Color Purple Book by Marsha Norman. Music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray. Based upon the novel written by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture. Direction and musical staging by John Doyle. Set design by John Doyle. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Gregory Clarke. Hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations by Joseph Joubuert. Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, also starring Danielle Brooks, with Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, Joaquina Kalukango, Phoenix Best, Dwayne Clark, Lawrence Clayton, Carrie Compere, Patrice Covington, Adrianna Hicks, Bre Jackson, Grasan Kingsberry, Kevyn Morrow, Ken Robinson, Antoine L. Smith, Carla R. Stewart, Akron Watson, Rema Webb.
Such is the message, of course, of the 1982 Alice Walker novel and the 1985 movie on which writers Marsha Norman (book) and Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray (music and lyrics) based their 2005 musical. The action follows a young African-American woman named Celie through Georgia in the first half of the 20th century, from when she's married out of the home of her incestuous father to her finding vindication in herself and the abilities that others had kept suppressed all her life. She's special and unique, we're told time and time again, not merely because she has a heretofore unexplored vision for designing pants or even because she loves women as freely as she loves men, but because she's a human being and deserves nothing less.
Walker's story remains a fresh spin on the "woman finds herself" theme, if only because so many of its elements remain unexpected even in our more liberal and tolerant current age; but despite a certain transgressive streak, the musical has never been the most innovative kid on the block. (Show Boat, for example, did much of this in 1927and did it better.) It speaks less through the language of the heart than the language of pop cliché, Norman's book providing little more than a skeletal framework for box-checking songs (the spiritual, the sly sex grind, the empowerment anthem) than any natural dramatic necessity.
With this production, Doyle has set out to prove that The Color Purple's director could fulfill that same role. Visual and aural excesses have been stripped away; Doyle's own set depicts a sun-bleached porch lined to the flies with chairs, as though the whole South is a lazy Sunday afternoon get-together, and the orchestra has been shredded to bare-essential size (from 18 pieces to six). A broad-ranging community (and cast size) has likewise been reduced to just a handful of people who can barely project a full living room, to say nothing of Georgia. Many lengthy exchanges are staged with actors looking away from each other or out at the audience. Personal growth and even the passage of time are treated as, at best, vague ideas.
Doyle has yet to demonstrate that he knows any other way to tackle musicals: His Sweeney Todd, Company, A Catered Affair, and The Visit on Broadway, and Road Show, Passion, and Allegro Off-Broadway, have all demonstrated the same microscopic arsenal of ideas and branded him as one of the least resourceful and inventive directors to emerge on these shores in the last decade. So the only relevant question here is: Does Doyle's familiar bag of tricks work this time?
Yes and no. Doyle's obsession with personal alienation mildly amplifies the abusive relationships at the show's core. These are primarily between Celie (Cynthia Erivo) and either her father (Kevyn Morrow) or her unloving husband, Mister (Isaiah Johnson). But strains of dissatisfaction are similarly evident between Mister's son, Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), and his wife Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and temporary squeeze Squeak (Patrice Covington), and between the slinky singer Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson) and both Mister and Celie, who are transformed by exposure to her earthy wisdom and sexuality. These relationships, and the interplay between them, seem tighter-knit onstage now than they did before, as than they still read in the script.
You have to give up a lot to get those few positive tweaks, however. Scope, for example: Though the narrative spans four decades, the direction, acting, even makeup offer no hint of it, which guts Celie's accomplishments of their epic significance. And because everything takes place on a bland unit set and, per his usual, Doyle has either downplayed or eliminated transitions between scenes, there's no way to know why, when, or if you move between locations and states of mind, so following the direction of the story or anyone's progression through it is tricky. (Sofia is functionally identical before and after the violence she suffers; and Harpo's much-discussed juke joint could just as easily be a church or a cornfield.)
Coupled with Doyle's "musical staging" (it sure ain't choreography), which is dry, repetitive, and disinterested, this infects everything with a stale staidness that saps what soulfulness the writing conveys. Erivo is most hobbled by this; she labors tirelessly, but creates only a cold, unremittingly distant performance suggesting that Celie's innate joy has already withered on the vine. In Erivo's portrayal, triumph and tragedy are no different, and she is unable to evolve to the higher state of being she must. As a result, her climactic show-stopper, "I'm Here," though not poorly sung, is pinched and vague, emanating more from sound designer Gregory Clarke's paralyzingly loud amplification than Celie's tortured-and-released inner being.
Hudson, a finalist on American Idol who won an Oscar for the film version of Dreamgirls, is even more at odds. She stands with statuesque intention, sure, and luxuriates in the richest of Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, but she never looks or sounds comfortable with Shug's free-wheeling nature, and unlocks little that's provocative, romantic, or alluring in the songs that define a woman who, for Celie, is the physical embodiment of love. Johnson nails Mister's nastiness, but not his development into a modern man, leaving the role to sound only one blustery note. Scatliffe and Brooks do better at balancing Harpo's and Sofia's darker and lighter experiences, though they skew slightly more toward shallow comic relief than is perhaps ideal.
Only Joaquina Kalukango, who plays Celie's treasured sister, Nettie, fashions a fully recognizable and sympathetic person, which is no small achievement given the low amount of stage time she has and how little the blocking emphasizes her. But Kalukango's shimmering performance makes you understand, if somewhat tangentially, why Nettie would be Celie's spiritual anchor through so many deeply unsettling trials.
Kalukango's contribution is far from nothing, but the show that surrounds her needs more humanity than she alone can provide. As it is, this is a drab evocation of a journey that should excite and inspire, and one that's in desperate need of color beyond the one named in its title.