The Color Purple
Based on the novel by Alice Walker
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Alice Willis, and Stephen Bray
Through Oct. 21
Paper Mill Playhouse
By GWEN OREL
If you missed the celebrated 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” directed by John Doyle, you can see the touring version at Paper Mill Playhouse through Oct. 21.
Though not quite so joyful and uplifting as the Broadway version that won Cynthia Erivo a Tony Award for her portrayal of beaten-down Celie, who refuses to stay beaten-down, it’s still a wonderful theatrical experience.
It’s almost sung-through, and the music often evokes gospel. That’s appropriate for a book based on letters to God, the format of Alice Walker’s 1982 National Book Award-winning novel. Oprah made her film debut in the 1985 film of the book, and the musical first came to Broadway in 2005.
At Paper Mill, at times, the prayers are more cries of pain than rejoicing in what God has made — a character remarks that God must be made when people walk through a field and don’t appreciate the color purple.
But it’s still a prayer, and the ending, a sung “Amen,” touches the soul.
The 2015 Broadway revival, which originated in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory and featured Jennifer Hudson as the sultry singer Shug, took a minimalist approach to staging, with three pillars onstage with different chairs hanging on them (Doyle also designed the set). The chairs are taken down and used as chairs, shovels, and other things. Folding sheets and laundry are used in non-realistic ways. The show also won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
The story is a little tough to take, so bring children with caution: there is rape, violence, racism. Walker’s book is one of the most consistently challenged in schools and libraries.
In the early 1900s, 14-year-old Celie (Adrianna Hicks), after having her second child by her father, marries Mister (Gavin Gregory), to keep her beloved, prettier sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) free.
She cares for Mister’s children, and even cares for and eventually falls in love with Mister’s love object, the sexy, visiting Shug (Carla R. Stewart). Mister’s son Harpo (Jay Donnell) loves and marries the outspoken Sofia (Carrie Compere), whose catchphrase is “Hell, no.” But in a moment of bitterness Celie suggests Harpo beat Sofia to get her to mind him. Sophia leaves Harpo, and then is beaten and jailed by white men when she sasses the mayor’s wife. All the while Celie believes her sister Nettie to be dead — because Mister hides her letters. Nettie has gone to Africa to be a missionary.
It’s grim, all right. But Act II is much, much brighter.
As Celie, Hicks has a powerful voice, but her bitterness at times seems almost too sophisticated. Compere’s Sofia completely captivates; her belt hits the roof and comes back again, and her laughter is irresistible. Stewart’s Shug Avery lights up a juke joint scene with her “Push the Button.” Erica Durham, as Squeak, a femme fatale wannabe, channels Minnie Mouse without ever becoming a cartoon. And Gregory makes the unlikable Mister both frightening and pitiful. If his arc is a little hard to believe, that’s OK.
The happy endings overall feel improbable.
They demand a leap of faith.