When most people hear “The Color Purple,” they may think of the critically acclaimed 1985 film starring Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover, which went on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards.
The musical, however, which debuted on Broadway in 2005, has enjoyed a similar success to its cinematic counterpart, and is growing in recognition, after also being nominated 11 times (at the 2006 Tony Awards), before winning Best Musical Revival just two years ago. Playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through June 17th, this poignant touring production is poetically adapted by Marsha Norman (who is honorably faithful to Alice Walker’s 1982 novel), directed with a distinguished earnestness by John Doyle, and is highlighted by emotive music and lyrics from Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell, and Allee Willis. Assisted by a perceptive and astonishing cast of powerhouse singers, and an orchestra resolvedly conducted by Darryl Archibald, our attention is guided and made aware of the moving struggle of African-American women in the Southern region of the United States (specifically Georgia) during the early/mid-20th century.
Featuring a scenic design that remains immutable throughout, Doyle’s staging is decidedly ideal, because it enhances the heartfelt subject matter, as opposed to overwhelming it. A backdrop of criss-crossed wood panels and fixtures of wooden chairs, including a group of movable chairs on the stage (oft-incorporated into the choreography), offer a refreshing simplicity that allow audience members to hone in on the stellar performers who are dressed in Ann Hould-Ward’s sublimely accurate period costumes stitched with mostly muted colors. The visuals touch on the somber mood and tribulations that the women in the musical are particularly subjected to and strive to rise from. Suffice it to say, it’s not just the sociopolitical constraints during that time which are holding the women back, but the men in their lives, who either treat them poorly or take them for granted. Still, despite many heavy moments, there are also hair-raisingly proud declamations, along with laugh-out-loud humor, that comprise a balanced production which is as surprisingly funny as it is deeply affecting.
The protagonist in the story is Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a woman who is not only compelled to relinquish her two babies as a teen (as she does not have the means to care for them) but is lamentably coerced to marry the ruthless and totalitarian Albert “Mister” Johnson (Gavin Gregory). To make matters worse, besides being physically abused and regarded as only a house servant by Mister, Celie is separated from her sister, Nettie (N’Jameh Camara). These events transpire in a town that, moreover, shines a light on the relationship between Mister’s misguided son, Harpo (J. Daughtry) and his staunchly independent wife, Sofia (Carrie Compere), as well as the changing dynamics that occur when the legendarily sassy and sensual Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart) arrives on the scene. As discontentment among the women grows, so does their empowering support of one another, insofar that they eventually earn their rightful place among their male counterparts.
As Celie, Adrianna Hicks gives an out-of-this-world performance that is exemplary in its conveyance of stark emotion. Hicks is undoubtedly blessed with a voice that is wide-ranging in its application. On one hand, her voice echoes with a sweet melancholy during “Somebody Gonna Love Me,” and then resounds with a glowing volume of rapturous potency during the title song (reprise) and especially the thunderous “I’m Here.” Hicks’ robust voice is tireless, as is her gritty acting as Celie, who is set on a path that is transformatively emancipating – from doubting her higher purpose, to embracing herself and her agency as a female reborn.
The menacing and contemptible Mister is the antithesis of the blameless Celie – and Gavin Gregory does a remarkable job of playing the domestic despot. With whip in tow, and a howl to match, Gregory’s depiction of the role is pitch-perfect. We unanimously despise his Mister when he (and the male ensemble) bellow their ill-conceived dominance and remind of Celie’s subjugation during “Big Dog.” And yet, when Mister’s grip is neutralized when Celie fights back by leaving him, we also feel sorry for a broken man who may very well have been a victim of his past. Gregory’s despairing and nothing-to-lose rendition of “Celie’s Curse” is the epitome of leaving everything on the line for a character who purges his sins with song, leaving us to ponder his miraculous redemption.
Furthermore, Carrie Compere is sensational in how she skillfully fills Sofia’s shoes, as a female whose self-determination cannot be denied even by her own husband. Compere is astoundingly credible as not just a performer with impeccable stage awareness and comic timing, but as one who burns with an intensity so feverishly rousing that it might persuade attendees to get up and salute her. She not only has some of the sauciest zingers in the show but energizes with a blockbuster version of “Hell No!” (a categorical denunciation of domestic abuse). Needless to say, Compere’s Sofia is a crowd favorite for how personable she comes across with her emboldened charisma.
J. Daughtry complements Compere exceptionally well as her onstage husband, Harpo. Despite being sometimes influenced by those closest to him, Harpo generally means well and is usually happy to have a wife so outspoken and full of zestful confidence. Daughtry’s likeable portrayal of Harpo is sympathetic because we’re rooting for his persona to graduate from his father’s ignoble shadow and have a lasting marriage with Sofia. The culmination of this is the jocularly exultant duet — replete with some humorous dirty-dancing — in “Any Little Thing.”
Another principal performer is N’Jameh Camara, who plays Nettie with a superb grace. Camara’s dulcet voice in “Our Prayer” and “African Homeland” offer a solemn glimpse into the mind’s eye of a woman who is physically detached from Celie’s world, yet very much present in spirit. Nonetheless, Nettie doesn’t significantly impact Celie’s destiny quite like Carla R. Stewart’s seductive Shug Avery does. The two share a bond of kinship upon meeting, first founded on the common thread of Mister, which then takes a romantically intimate turn. As Avery, Stewart is unwaveringly delightful as a temptress of fate and heartbreak, with a delicateness underneath that Hicks’ Celie summons from her. This is witnessed via Stewart’s touching solo of “Too Beautiful for Words” (when Avery reassures Celie of her loveliness), the duet of “What About Love?”, and the title number. Stewart’s vocal prowess is something to truly behold, as it is at times mellifluously exquisite, and also capable of throwing sonorous arrows into the hearts of men during the too-hot-to-handle “Push da Button.”
Among a top-tier cast, other standouts include Erica Durham as Harpo’s temporary love interest, Squeak, with a voice that is sharp enough to do just that and exasperate Sofia during a riotous showdown; and Angela Birchett, whose uplifting and enthusiastically powerful vocals leave the audience breathless at the outset of the musical.
Clearly, it’s easy to see why the subject matter of “The Color Purple” is as viscerally engaging as it is. There is more to it than simply a coming-of-age story. The conscientious plot makes a declaratively powerful statement on political and social affairs relating to both African Americans of yesteryear and today, in addition to the dynamics inherent between men and women. In the end, it all comes down to the right to strive for a more egalitarian representation in one’s community and in society at large. The musical, and in this case, the North-American touring production, benefits tremendously from the eloquence of its mightily sung musical numbers, so much so that it triumphantly reimagines the possibilities of language as an instrumental tool to be used for the greater good.