Judging from the audience members at The Color Purple, Oprah knew exactly what she was doing when she became one of the lead producers on Broadway for this musical based upon the novel by Alice Walker. Or was it the other way around? Once, Oprah became a producer, her audience-base and main demographic (middle-aged women) flocked to this musical. Either way, if you are a fan of Oprah, then I suggest this musical is for you.
The show is a success. It recouped its 11-million dollar investment on Broadway within the first year and has since made over 100 million dollars to date. Not bad for a musical thats main thematic material deals directly with incest, rape, teenage pregnancy, spousal abuse, family separation, a forbidden homosexual relationship, abandonment and adultery. (The only thing we’re missing is drug abuse.) But if you are familiar with Walker’s book and the subsequent Steven Spielberg movie, then you already knew all of this. Yet, the tag line suggests it’s a musical “all about hope and the healing power of love.” You need a lot of hope and love to overcome the horrible life events that Celie (Dayna Jarae Dantzler) has to go through. Even at an old age, when Celie’s reacquainted with her long-lost sister Nettie (Traci Allen), I still don’t feel totally cleansed of it all.
As Ben Brantley pointed out in his original review of The Color Purple in The New York Times, he states, “So much plot, so many years, so many characters to cover in less than three hours. Or, as one of the many vibrant heroines sings, prettily papering over a gap of eight years, ‘So many winters gray and summers blue.'” I tend to agree. The musical follows Celie from her second pregnancy at 14-years old to her sixty’s – over 40 years of life and hardship. It’s a lot to take in at any level. Brantley felt the redeeming quality was the performers, “…this show is blessed with a surfeit of performing talent.” This second national non-equity tour has some incredible talent but it’s all a bit underwhelming when comparing it to the original cast of performers like: LaChanze (Tony Award winner), Saycon Sengbloh (Fela!), Brandon Victor Dixon (The Scottsboro Boys) and even the Celie replacement with American Idol winner, Fantasia Barrino. (Fantasia’s understudy is a huge star as well. Montego Glover was recently nominated for a Tony for her leading role in the Tony-winning Best Musical, Memphis.) The first national tour boasted a cast of major talent too. It featured Bay Area born LaToya London (American Idol) and Michelle Williams (Destiny’s Child) starring in the leading roles. I’m thinking that for this particular show, the cast has to have, as Eva Peron sings in Evita, some “star-quality”.
While, everyone in the cast was talented and had beautiful voices, there was something missing from it all. It didn’t sparkle.
The only character who shined through all of the dark material was Shug Avery (Taprena Augustine). Her Billie Holiday inspired performance was incredible. Whenever she was on stage, she demanded my attention and it was easily attained.
The music, written by three composers: Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, features gospel, jazz, pop and the blues but only a few songs stood out. The first song is a gospel-inspired joyous praise called, “Huckleberry Pie, Mysterious Ways”. It’s fantastic. It tells us to, “make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” and I can’t think of a better song to start the show with. The end of the first act, in Mister’s house, Shug and Celie explore their newfound love for each other in the top-40 inspired duet, “What About Love”. The show ends with “The Color Purple” where Celie thanks Mister and Shug for orchestrating the reunion of her children and sister, and God, for the safe return of her family. It’s a heart-warming R&B/Gospel inspired song that wraps up the injustice of the last forty years with an “American Idol” finale type of song where it tries to be emotionally manipulative at the highest level. While the score is generally good, it didn’t inspire either.
Every once in a while, I’ll see a show that doesn’t resonate at all with me and unfortunately, this was it. The show obviously resonates with someone as thousands of people have flocked to see it, but not with me and I’m okay with that. But, it doesn’t mean, you shouldn’t try it out yourself. Theatre has a way of affecting people so differently, depending on life circumstance, the current mood your in and your current likes and dislikes. With this particular emotionally-driven show, I’m interested in your thoughts.
How did The Color Purple affect you?
Listen to the Broadway Original Cast Recording:
“Huckleberry Pie, Mysterious Ways”
“What About Love”
“The Color Purple”