Dec 10, 2015
Give thanks this morning, children of Broadway, and throw in a hearty hallelujah. “The Color Purple” has been born again, and its conversion is a glory to behold.
The heart-clutching, gospel-flavored musical that opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on Thursday night — in a production led by an incandescent new star named Cynthia Erivo and, in her Broadway debut, an enchanting Jennifer Hudson — share a title, the same characters, the same source of inspiration (Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) and most of the same songs with “The Color Purple” seen on Broadway a decade ago. But, oh, what a difference there is between them.
That earlier “Color Purple,” a box-office hit, was a big, gaudy, lumbering creature that felt oversold and overdressed. The current version is a slim, fleet-footed beauty, simply attired and beguilingly modest. Don’t be deceived, though, by its air of humility. There’s a deep wealth of power within its restraint.
As miraculous as this transformation may seem, it takes hard work, ruthless editing and a spark of genius to make a miracle on Broadway. That’s certainly true of this “Color Purple,” which (then as now) has a book by Marsha Norman, with songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The man in charge here is the Scottish-born John Doyle, the newly anointed artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, who made his name by stripping musicals — especially works by Stephen Sondheim (“Company,” “Sweeney Todd”) — down to their bare essentials.
It’s an approach that has been called gimmicky, especially when Mr. Doyle has his cast doubling as its own orchestra (which is not the case with this latest effort). But mostly, his formula has proved remarkably sound; it allows audiences to zero in on a show’s musical and emotional essence, while seeming to place narrative control directly in the hands of the performers. In a Doyle production, the characters own their own stories.
This sensibility is a perfect match for “The Color Purple,” a portrait of African-American women coming into their own in rural Georgia during the first half of the 20th century. Ms. Walker’s novel is presented as a series of letters, mostly written by its heroine, Celie, to God and to the beloved sister from whom she is separated. This allows the radical changes that occur during Celie’s life to register not only through her description of events but also through the development of her increasingly confident voice.
The original Broadway production, directed by the talented Gary Griffin, aimed for a panoramic effect, not unlike that of Steven Spielberg’s overripe 1985 film adaptation. And while Celie was played most appealingly by LaChanze, she tended to look small and lost as the show rushed through its eventful 40 years of plot, like a valiant marcher in a history parade viewed from the top of the bleachers.
Mr. Doyle’s version, previously staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, puts Celie and her sisters in suffering and triumph front and center. His set suggests a cozy abstraction of a well-scrubbed single-room wooden house, furnished with straight-backed chairs that hang from the rear wall.
It’s a sepia-photograph-toned world (a color scheme carried out by Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Jane Cox’s lighting) of bare necessities, waiting to be populated by hungry imaginations. Only in the second act, as Celie reads letters describing her sister’s work as a missionary in Africa, are bright colors introduced into the palette. By the end, it’s Celie herself (who becomes a successful clothing designer) who brings color to her drab, earth-toned world.
Ms. Norman’s script has no overarching framing device — no “I remember” or “Dear Reader” structure — yet the effect here is of a story coming to life in the telling. All those chairs are stages from which yarns can be spun. The first words we hear have the plangent resonance of childhood remembered: “Hey, sista, whatcha gon’ do?”
The question is sung by Celie (Ms. Erivo) to her sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango); it’s part of a habitual game-playing chant, reminding us that, in many ways, these girls are still children. Yet Celie, at 14, has already borne (and lost) two babies by the man she believes to be her father (Kevyn Morrow). Soon she will be sold into marriage to the whip-wielding Mister (an astringent Isaiah Johnson), who reminds her that she is poor, black and ugly — and trapped.
The story of Celie’s liberation is borne on a river of fluidly intermixed songs and spoken words that, as is often the case in cherished family anecdotes, bypasses long stretches of years and brings isolated events into dominant relief. If the story sometimes feels awkwardly tall, especially its wish-fulfilling second act, the musical forms it takes seem convincingly indigenous to its time and place.
There is, inevitably, gospel call and response, the devotional fervor of which Celie comes to resent (nobody’s answering her prayers) and later to embrace on her own terms. Fieldwork songs figure, too, reflections here of Celie’s domestic slavery. Then there are the songs of resistance, embodied with verve by two very different women who help Celie learn her own strength: Sofia (Danielle Brooks) and Shug Avery (Ms. Hudson).
Portrayed as a homemade steamroller by the wonderful Ms. Brooks (of “Orange Is the New Black”), Sofia is the strapping wife of Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), Mister’s son, and she’s not about to let any man boss her around. Shug, a flashy honky-tonk singer, is Mister’s sometime mistress, though no single lover owns her. Usually, she’s played as a brazen, Bessie Smith-style blues diva.
Ms. Hudson, though, brings a softening vulnerability to Shug that suggests that, like Celie, she’s been partly pushed into what she’s become by how men regard her. Best known as a recording artist and “American Idol” finalist (who also won an Oscar for the movie “Dreamgirls”), Ms. Hudson radiates a lush, supple stage presence that is echoed by her velvet voice.
We see the tenderness — and the need to be cared for — that Celie sees in Shug. And we understand why these mismatched women would fall for each other. Their climactic duet at the end of the first act (“What About Love?”), for all its gentleness, is still the most sensual love song on Broadway this season.
But the greatest joy of all, at least for longtime believers in theater mythology, is the ascendancy of Ms. Erivo, who was very good when I saw her in London but is even better here. Celie undergoes a drastic metamorphosis from battered, invisible wife to determined, self-reliant businesswoman. Ms. Erivo escorts us through these transformations with a subtle but tensile performance that parallels her character’s evolution.
Like the rest of the show, she never oversells herself; she asks us politely but compellingly to listen, even when she speaks in a whisper. By the production’s end, Celie has developed a muscular voice that reaches to heaven, and Ms. Erivo has emerged as a bona fide star who lifts the audience to its feet.
This is as it should be. Celie may have started off cowed and self-effacing, but we’ve always sensed that there’s a rare spirit inside, just waiting to be coaxed to the surface. That about sums up Mr. Doyle’s relationship, too, to this vitally reincarnated musical.