Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson in The Color Purple
(© Matthew Murphy)
Stunning. It's the best word to describe both John Doyle's remarkable new production of The Color Purple that opened last night at Bernard Jacobs Theatre. The word also applies to Cynthia Erivo’s electrifying Broadway debut in the show.
The musical, of course, revisits the story told in Alice Walker's 1982 novel that inspired Steven Spielberg's 1985 film of the same name. The tuner premiered on Broadway a decade ago, and at the time, the overblown show, which ultimately proved to be a financial success, masked the emotional potency of Walker’s tale. The musical looked and sounded like a “big Broadway musical” and nothing at all like the story of a black woman who slowly comes into her own despite soul-crushing events she endures during the first half of the last century.
Visually, Doyle’s production, played out on a stage that Doyle (working as scenic designer), leaves essentially bare. It’s just backed by a mammoth planked wall on which a variety of straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs hang. It’s a stark visual and also a curiously comforting one as it somehow collapses a number of rural small town kitchens, so often called the heart of a home, into one abstract whole.
Ann Hould-Ward’s earth tone costume designs (although flashes of color do arise) and Jane Cox’s warm lighitng design, which also modestly uses color, complete the gorgeously simple sepia-toned world in which this show, with book by Marsha Norman, and a score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, unfolds.
Take these visuals and combine them with the new orchestrations from Joseph Jourbert and Catherine Jayes, which give gospel, country-western, spiritual, and gentle R&B underpinnings to songs that had sounded like slick pop originally, and you discover an entirely new musical with this staging.
It allows the tale of Celie and her strong-willed and much put-upon sisters (both actual and figurative) to take center stage, fully pulling in hearts and then shattering them.
A sense of both sadness and joy comes during the first moments of the show as theatergoers encounter the still-teenage Celie and her sister Nettie (an understatedly sunny performance from Joaquina Kalukango) and learn that Celie is pregnant for the second time by her late mother’s boyfriend. There’s a girlishness and innocence that the two share, which makes the discovery that Celie will have to give up her child to an uncertain future as soon as she’s given birth feel like a punch to the gut. A second blow arrives as she’s essentially sold into marriage to an abusive tobacco farmer, Mister (Isaiah Johnson).
Once at Mister’s, Celie works dawn to late night taking care of his needs as well as those of his children. It’s not until Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson), a woman born and raised in the small Georgia town, who escaped to a life on her own as singer, returns that Celie finds a modicum of happiness. Mister, who has an undying love for Shug, takes her as his mistress. While she’s in the house she also becomes Celie’s confidante and lover.
It’s through Shug, and the example of Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the outspoken woman whom Mister’s soft-spoken son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe) marries that Celie begins to learn her worth and discover her own innate strength.
Watching Erivo’s performance slowly transform from that of a timid, hopeful despite her circumstances child into that of a self-confident woman proves to be the other unquestionable joy of Doyle’s staging. With each new hardship, friendship, and sometimes eye-opening experience, Erivo’s Celie modulates slightly, and audiences witness a small mile-marker in the woman’s growth. In the process, it gains an irresistibly powerful pull, so that by the time Erivo unleashes her formidable vocal power with the 11 o’clock number “I’m Here,” audiences are primed to see this woman succeed. The combination of Erivo’s masterful performance throughout the show and her delivery of the tune in particular leads to a moment of intense catharsis for both the character and the audience.
Beyond this star-making turn, the show bursts with terrific performances, particularly from Jennifer Hudson who not only sounds fantastic, but also imbues Shug with a no-nonsense free-spiritedness, that never turns the character into a cliché of the “bad woman” returned to small town life. Similarly, Brooks’ turn as Sofia proves to be both hysterically funny and also deeply moving.
As for the men who love, tolerate, and sometimes abuse the women, principally, Mister and Harpo, Johnson and Scatliffe deliver beautifully calibrated performances. Johnson traverses Mister’s story, one which ultimately has a redemptive end, with grace, and it’s just as easy to loathe the character early on as it is to smile at his ability to change by the musical’s end. Scatliffe, in the tricky role of Mister’s both henpecked and womanizing son, delivers a performance that allows audiences to understand that Harpo is both a person who is a product of his times and one who’s attempting to adapt as times and expectations of a what makes a man change.
The ability to savor the nuances in these performers' work stems directly from Doyle’s clear-sighted vision for the production, which places the emphasis on the characters’ tales and simply allows tunefulness to be one of the languages in which they tell their stories.
---- Andy Propst
The Color Purple plays at Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: colorpurple.com.
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