Dec 10, 2015
Guided by director John Doyle, and led by actress Cynthia Erivo, who arrives from London to become an instant Broadway star, the cast economically unspools the details of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel through 18 gospel and rhythm and blues numbers by the songwriting team of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The economizing occurs courtesy of the trimming of about 30 minutes of the musical’s original two-hour, 45-minute run time, mostly through cuts to Marsha Norman’s exposition-heavy book. The diet the musical’s been put on is a boon to its well-being — and ours.
What remains of “The Color Purple,” which had its official opening Thursday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is a sleek, fast-paced treatment — virtually a concert version — of the journey of Erivo’s heart-melting Celie. Cruelly separated in the Georgia of the early 20th century from her beloved sister Nettie (excellent Joaquina Kalukango) and married off to the vicious Mister (splendid Isaiah Johnson), she finds salvation in the love for another woman: Shug Avery, played here by Jennifer Hudson, in the evening’s highest-profile and least convincing bit of casting.
Doyle, best known in these parts for his innovative Broadway revivals of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” in which the actors doubled as the orchestra, provides a refreshingly clean slate, too, for “The Color Purple’s” physical elements. Gone along with some of the clunky, sermonizing moments are the elaborate sets of productions past. On a bare floor of wooden planks, the cast files on carrying plain slit-backed kitchen chairs, which are used to create everything from pulpits to jail cells. (The backdrop of the set — designed by Doyle — is a monumental wall of the chairs.) The setting seems a reflection of unvarnished Celie, who only wants out of life the simple, comforting joys of loving family and fulfilling work.
This overly episodic musical still doesn’t quite measure up to the genre’s top-tier shows: Although Celie’s evolution is capably recorded, the transformations of some of the other characters — particularly Johnson’s Mister, who’s required to undergo a hard-to-credit evil-to-angelic metamorphosis — remain unpersuasive. That, however, does not mean the other actors can’t put exhilarating personal stamps on the roles. This is particularly true of Danielle Brooks of “Orange Is the New Black” fame, who here adds a winning ferocity to the surefire part of take-no-guff Sofia, and to Sofia’s rebellious anthem, “Hell, No!” (As her gentle-natured husband Harpo, Kyle Scatliffe adds to the proceedings a terrific comic performance.)
In Doyle’s canny staging, other production numbers, such as the boisterous “Mysterious Ways” and the brooding “Big Dog,” achieve maximum impact. Hudson, an Oscar winner for “Dreamgirls,” portrays here the spell-casting juke joint singer Shug. As one readily anticipates, her renditions of “Too Beautiful for Words,” “Push da Button” and the duet with Celie “What About Love?” are themselves dreamy. But in the lulls between those songs, Hudson evinces a reserve that diminishes the sexy, flamboyant Shug. You want someone to tell her to let go up there, to liberate herself of some of her apparent self-consciousness and plug more freely into Shug’s irreverent spirit. (The costumes that Ann Hould-Ward comes up with for her aren’t the most exciting, either.)
There’s more than enough combustibility on that stage, though, to compensate for any occasional energy deficits. And that goes treble for the dynamically emotive Erivo, who makes of Walker’s heroine such an urgent life force that you’re left in these troubled times with a reassuring sense that goodness really still can be its own reward.