- OnStage New York Critic
The Color Purple, the Musical is an adaptation of the 1983 novel of the same name written by Alice Walker. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The Color Purple was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985. The musical opened on Broadway in 2005 for the first time and ran through February 2008. Featuring the book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray this 2015 Broadway revival directed by John Doyle received a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.
The second Tony award the show received went to the star of the show, British actress Cynthia Erivo, for the Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. And I must admit, even though musicals are not my favorite form of theater and I rarely get them, this one got me, largely because of Erivo’s colossal performance.
The transformation from 14 year-old Celie, pregnant with the second child from her father to an empowered and wise woman, is incredible to witness. Celie has a massive arc of character; her story has a separation from beloved sister, abusive marriage to Mister, love affair with the female jazz singer named Shug Avery, their life in Memphis and opening her own business. It’s a blessing and a curse for an actor. On the one hand this narrative gives you a wide range of emotions to work within, on the other it can easily become a soap opera like.
But Cynthia Erivo owns the part, she lives and breathes Celie, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with her as the entire audience of more then a thousand people, filling the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, does. They laugh and sigh in unison, with the corner of my eye I see people brush away tears and I see hands waving in the air like at a rock concert. When Erivo is leaving her despotic husband and yells in rage: “I may be poor, I may be black but I’m here!” and throws her apron on the ground, a thousand people scream as if it was their own victory.
The joy and energy of “Miss Celie’s Pants” number is contagious, Erivo leads a choir of ladies hopping on and off the chairs in a rousing number celebrating female entrepreneurs. By the end of it the audience claps so long and hard that Erivo has to step out of the shoes of her heroine and put on a conductor’s hat. With a single sign of her hand she makes the raucous ocean of applause quiet, sings one line and the audience bursts into laughter.
Erivo final solo “I’m Here” is performed on a bare stage with just the singer holding the attention. One can almost feel the vibration of the sound waves, as her voice is that strong. The powerful message of the song delivered by this wild voice lands directly in your heart. Sobbing and smiling, people hop on their feet and give Cynthia Erivo a long, substantive ovation.
The other members of the cast form a magnificent ensemble making no number insignificant. The Color Purple features a variety of female characters that influenced Celie. There is her sister Nettie, a gentle soul (Adrianna Hicks substituting for Joaquina Kalukango), tough Sofia (Danielle Brooks) with a catch phrase and musical number “Hell No!”, seductive but a bit worn out Shug (Heather Headley) and a simple-minded Squeak (usually Patrice Covington but Phoenix Best in the performance that I attended). Male characters sparse in quantity and “quality”, lead by sadistic Mister (Isaiah Johnson) and his humble but goodhearted son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe).
This opposition of “bad” men and victimized women makes the story a bit one-sided. But it’s a piece of a commercial musical theater on Broadway so a head-on approach is unfortunately expected. However, the empowering effect of it is undeniable, I even saw somebody’s comment on Instagram: “this musical has a healing power”. Three main components of its success are: 1) the cast, 2) score of jazz, regtime, gospel and blues and 3) John Doyle, the director and set designer of The Color Purple.
The story is set in the beginning of the 20th century in the rural South but you won’t see any sign of the pretentious realism in this production. John Doyle gets rid of the scenery and furniture, putting actors on a bare stage. He uses a series of objects as elements of set design and props: hats, large pieces of fabric, baskets but most of all chairs. Old wooden chairs of different designs are hanging on the back wall made of wooden planks, filing three segments from top to bottom. Actors sit on chairs, stand on chairs, use them as weapons and tools. Doyle gets very inventive and consistent in the use of chairs to the extent where this piece of furniture becomes a continuation of an actor’s body.
The minimalism allows for the seamless transitions between the scenes, draws the attention to the actors and puts the story out of the historical context, hinting at the timelessness of these topics. It also accumulates symbolism around chair, like home and support, which is spelled out in the final solo “I’m Here”. Cynthia Erivo sings: “I got my house, it still keeps the cold out, I got my chair when my body can’t hold out” and lightly touches one of the chairs on the back wall. The anonymous chairs on the wall instantly become a representation of other women’s houses and lives.
The Color Purple runs in Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 242 W 45th Street through December 18th. Tickets start from $59, go to http://colorpurple.com/tickets for purchase and more information.