You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Color Purple

Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg's 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup paying off in the second half.

With:
Celie - Jeannette Bayardelle Sofia - Felicia P. Fields Shug Avery - Michelle Williams Mister - Rufus Bonds Jr. Harpo - Stu James Nettie - LaToya London Squeak - Stephanie St. James

Among the many surprises of the surprise Broadway hit “The Color Purple” was that a musical-comedy adaptation of Alice Walker’s now-iconic novel could pack a greater emotional wallop than a nonsinging movie version. Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup paying off in the second half. Themes of community and redemption come through clearly, the desired uplift elicited and earned.

The Ahmanson stage — beautifully filled by designer John Lee Beatty’s original Gotham collages of slatted wood and textured fabrics — encompasses the full course of the journey of Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle) from self-loathing to transcendence.

Librettist Marsha Norman incorporates the key incidents in a life of supreme misery: Celie’s early rapes by her “Pa”; the loss of two children and beloved sister Nettie (a glowing LaToya London); and virtual enslavement to brutal husband Mister (Rufus Bonds Jr.), who flaunts an on-again, off-again affair with damaged siren Shug Avery (Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child), herself awakening Celie’s physical desire.

Norman also finds room for those at Celie’s periphery, notably the redoubtable life force Sofia (Tony-nominee Felicia P. Fields) countering anyone’s nonsense with a hearty “Hell no.” That’s one of several sung character revelations courtesy of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s score, even more varied and interesting upon repeated hearings.

It makes for an overstuffed first act of pleasant entertainment but, truth be told, not much impact. A couple of slaps, all there’s much time for, can’t fully convey a lifetime of Celie’s abuse. Since the gospel meeting “Mysterious Ways” and sizzling blues “Push Da Button” fail to convey the desperation underlying a frenzied church service or late-night juke-joint bender, these admittedly joyful numbers are nothing more than that, undercutting the serious tone (as does a propensity for mugging in early group scenes).

The emotional stakes are raised dramatically in act two, when white townspeople’s brutal attack on Sofia is intercut with the reported massacre of the African village in which Nettie has been living. Latter sequence is suggestively staged through Donald Byrd’s muscular choreography, complemented by a folk-art drop representing Celie’s fantasy of Africa and dazzling swaths of blue in which Paul Tazewell drapes the tribe.

Shaking within a stark white beam prison light from designer Brian MacDevitt, the effervescent, vital Fields turns Sofia into a palsied wraith, sending Bayardelle’s Celie into the righteous rage we’ve rooted for her to find all along. From that point on, “The Color Purple” takes nary a false step in storytelling or performance. The characters age believably, and they satisfyingly soften into their idealized portraits of virtue at the heart of Walker’s original intent.

Helmer Gary Griffin’s cast conveys each character’s essence in broad but believable strokes, especially the unimprovable Fields and London. Tuner is more understanding of its males than the caricaturing movie: Stu James finds a likable through-line for Sofia’s lovesick swain Harpo, while Bonds subtly carries out Mister’s transformation (from beast to penitent, literally in a lightning flash).

Williams’ Shug seems too unspoiled for a role that should reflect considerable hard mileage, but her exoticism more than merits the cast’s endlessly repeated, hungry refrain “Shug A-a-a-a-a-very,” and sweet handling of the title tune easily establishes character as the show’s preeminent moral authority, finally turning Celie from vengeance toward grace.

“The Color Purple” must stand or fall with its Celie, and Bayardelle admirably stays in focus even at her most invisibly downtrodden. Her discoveries of purpose and self-worth are slow but sure, with a pure-toned belt sending a shiver up the spine when applied to the yearning “What About Love?” or peerless selfhood anthem “I’m Here.”

For all the laissez-faire sexuality and unorthodox view of God-as-everywhere, “The Color Purple” has proven remarkably popular with church audiences, and so it should be this holiday season. At the finale, as MacDevitt finally brings out the purple he’s tactfully held back except in dabs, cast sings “Look what God has made — Amen!” and Celie opines they’re not old, they’re the youngest they’ve ever felt. It’s a theme more resonant of Easter perhaps than Christmas, as is the color purple itself, come to think of it. But this lovely show ends on a spiritual note eminently in keeping with peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

The Color Purple

Ahmanson Theater; 2,000 seats; $100 top

Production: An Oprah Winfrey, Scott Sanders, Roy Furman, Quincy Jones, Creative Battery, Anna Fantaci and Cheryl Lachowicz, Independent Presenters Network, David Lowy, Stephanie P. McClelland, Gary Winnick, Jan Kallish, Nederlander Presentations, Bob & Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Asnes and Adam Zotovich, Todd Johnson presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, book by Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Alice Walker and the Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment motion picture. Directed by Gary Griffin.

Crew: Choreography, Donald Byrd; sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jon Weston; music director, Sheilah Walker; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music supervisor and incidental music arrangements, Kevin Stites; production stage manager, Glynn David Turner. Opened, reviewed Dec. 16, 2007; runs through March 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Celie - Jeannette Bayardelle Sofia - Felicia P. Fields Shug Avery - Michelle Williams Mister - Rufus Bonds Jr. Harpo - Stu James Nettie - LaToya London Squeak - Stephanie St. JamesWith: Bridgette Bentley, Shani M. Borden, Brian Harlan Brooks, Renee Monique Brown, Tiffany Daniels, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex De Castro, Lynette Dupree, Lesly Terrell Donald, Aliyah D. Flowers, Andre Garner, Rhett George, Kimberly Ann Harris, Dameka Hayes, LaTonya Holmes, Jenna Ford Jackson, Trent Armand Kendall, Grasan Kingsberry, Keith Byron Kirk, Sumayah McRae, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Adam Wade, Anthony Wayne, Diamond White, Mariama Whyte, Anthony Williams II, Virginia Ann Woodruff.

More Scene

  • 'Atlanta' TV show premiere

    'Atlanta Robbin' Season' Will 'Show What Makes the City Tick,' Producer Says

    Among the many surprises of the surprise Broadway hit “The Color Purple” was that a musical-comedy adaptation of Alice Walker’s now-iconic novel could pack a greater emotional wallop than a nonsinging movie version. Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup […]

  • Mr Chow 50th Anniversary celebration

    Mr. Chow 50th Anniversary Party Draws Stevie Wonder, Heidi Klum & More Stars

    Among the many surprises of the surprise Broadway hit “The Color Purple” was that a musical-comedy adaptation of Alice Walker’s now-iconic novel could pack a greater emotional wallop than a nonsinging movie version. Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup […]

  • Paley Center for Media presents They

    African-American Showrunners Talk Strides in TV Representation

    Among the many surprises of the surprise Broadway hit “The Color Purple” was that a musical-comedy adaptation of Alice Walker’s now-iconic novel could pack a greater emotional wallop than a nonsinging movie version. Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup […]

  • 'Annihilation' film premiere

    'Annihilation' Star Jennifer Jason Leigh Responds to Whitewashing Accusations

    Among the many surprises of the surprise Broadway hit “The Color Purple” was that a musical-comedy adaptation of Alice Walker’s now-iconic novel could pack a greater emotional wallop than a nonsinging movie version. Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup […]

  • Viola Davis Women in the World

    Viola Davis on #MeToo: 'If You're Dedicated to Change, Let It Cost You Something'

    Among the many surprises of the surprise Broadway hit “The Color Purple” was that a musical-comedy adaptation of Alice Walker’s now-iconic novel could pack a greater emotional wallop than a nonsinging movie version. Tuner eschews the grandiose effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film in favor of precise consideration of character and a slow emotional buildup […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content