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.