Critics of Steven Spielberg’s popular movie version of “The Color Purple” usually argue that the director filtered the novel’s dark themes of violence, recovery and sexual complexity through a romantic purple haze manufactured by a Hollywood ill-equipped to understand rural Georgia. It feels like the production team behind this straight-ahead, modestly scaled new musical version at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater was desperately careful not to run from author Alice Walker’s intensely personal characters, her acute sense of the spirals of social injustice and her simple argument that, at the end of the day, we all wake up with only ourselves to blame or, preferably, to love.
The result is a solid, capably executed piece of musical theater — already a hit in Atlanta — that carefully plots Celie’s terrible life journey with dignity and integrity, making it deserving of its future berth on Broadway. Gary Griffin’s direction is smart and well-paced. And the show is careful to reflect its beloved source — expressed in the form of letters in the characters’ own unpolished language — with great fealty to its themes.
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But Walker also is an incomparable poet. And Spielberg knows a thing or two about an epic catharsis. It’s time for this well-meaning but overly prosaic show to heed both of them.
What’s missing from “The Color Purple” in this first Alliance incarnation is a sense of the sweeping poetic scale demanded by both the material and the form. We feel trapped indoors when we want to see nature. Characters fight for themselves when we want to see their alliance with larger causes. The show makes sense, but never soars as one suspects it could.
Even without any changes, the musical will find — and please — much of the loyal, multiracial audience Walker’s works deservedly enjoy. (The success of last season’s “A Raisin in the Sun” suggests New York theatergoers also could be receptive.)
However, given the show’s dark and serious themes, a major Broadway hit will need to give audiences the freedom to dream, the hope of reaching for something spiritual, the ability to become part of a tale far bigger than themselves. Too little of the necessary theatricality is in evidence, and the place to start the changes is with the score.
Since their cumulative credits include “September,” “Boogie Wonderland” and “Into the Groove,” it is self-evident that Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray know a thing or two about the melodic hook. And there are a lot of songs in “The Color Purple” with a lot of melodic hooks. Indeed, for a show that is not sung through, there are too many songs. Scene after scene starts with a few lines of dialogue and then dissolves into a musical number, usually before Marsha Norman’s generally right-headed book has really started to cook. The structure comes to feel all too inevitable.
While the score probably won’t sway Broadway purists, it’s actually pretty good. Rooting their work in gospel and R&B, the composing trio allow themselves to wander gently into anachronistic funk, exemplified by lots of juicy keyboards and in zippy ensemble numbers.
A major narrative musical device is the use of three women in “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” mode. It’s droll, but it also feels more suited to musical comedy than to this kind of serious fare. Still, the score offers plenty of varied, accessible, hummable stuff with effective lyrics, and it’s a composition of far greater complexity than many will initially appreciate.
But the numbers remain mere numbers, when what the show needs are musical themes that extend beyond them — motifs, whimsy, recurring ideas. These composers could do that. It’s really all about the difference between writing pop music and musical theater.
And, as musical theater, this show needs far more choreography.
Griffin’s production is deftly cast. And in the stunning work of Felicia P. Fields, who blasts away any memory of Oprah Winfrey in the role of the defiant Sofia, it has a star-making turn.
In the lead, the capable and vocally superb LaChanze wraps herself in knots trying to endow Celie with the dignified, self-effacing integrity present in the novel. She needs to turn her face more to the audience and let people be a part of her discoveries.
Similarly, Adriane Lenox would seem to have everything required for a Shug Avery, except the fundamental sizzle that explains why everyone falls in love with her.
The most significant miscue in a physical production that always serves the text but never sends us into reverie occurs once Celie gets her bucks and opens a clothing store. All of a sudden, we go from a world of wooden hovels to locales that look like Sears department stores. And the managerial Celie of the final act is so far removed from the character we’ve been trying to get to know throughout the rest of the night that the transformation does not seem credible. We switch worlds too fast.
A show’s need to lighten up isn’t always indicative of an impending train wreck. On the contrary, “Color Purple” sticks to such a safe course that you almost wish someone would throw a wrench into its trajectory. Forced to take some risks with an extant set of parts that could do this darn thing proud, it might just find a more poetic, more thrilling road.