The raw folk-lyricism, epistolary structure and hard-edged conviction of “The Color Purple” make Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel a challenging proposition for translation to a populist entertainment medium. Neither Steven Spielberg’s prettified, Amblin-ized 1985 movie nor this big, messy patchwork of a musical entirely do justice to the story of poor black women from the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century. But in both cases, the book’s vibrant characters and soaring emotional arc remain uncrushed. While the show crudely reduces the sprawling feminist saga to cartoonish episodes, it can count on an audience willing to connect the dots.
Walker created an indelible world as evocative and affecting in its depiction of sorrow and injustice as it is of joy, self-discovery and the redemptive power of love. Anyone familiar with the story brings a deep prior connection to these characters and their troubled lives. If the warmth surging from the aud on the show’s first press night was any indication, it will be a Rialto fixture for some time; the mighty promotional muscle of presenting producer Oprah Winfrey certainly won’t hurt that cause.
As the Broadway landscape becomes increasingly populated by pre-existing properties retooled as musicals, it’s interesting to clock the hum of recognition that comes with key songs or familiar comic moments. In “The Color Purple,” it comes with the power speeches.
Dipping into both the book and Spielberg’s film, writer Marsha Norman has shrewdly left chunks of movie dialogue almost intact. When Sofia — a part first played by Winfrey when she was on the verge of becoming a one-woman conglomerate — talks about having to fight all her life (“I love Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him or anybody beat me.”), or when meek Celie finally bites back at her husband (“You a low-down dirty dog is what’s wrong. It’s time for me to leave you and enter into Creation.”), cheering can be heard through the audience.
It’s a testament to Walker’s compassionate, truthful writing that moments like these — not to mention the genuinely inspirational emotional payoff of the show’s closing scene — register as vigorously as they do, despite the creative team’s unsophisticated storytelling and Gary Griffin’s by-the-numbers direction. Like the sugar-coated movie, this shapeless stage version is far more satisfying than it deserves to be.
A chief weakness is the failure to give Celie (LaChanze) decisive ownership of the story. Inevitably, her personal journey from enslavement to empowerment, from battered insignificance to proud self-worth, allows the character to blossom only toward the final curtain; it’s not until the penultimate song, “I’m Here,” that she gets to stake her claim on the center-stage position.
Celie’s odyssey is not short on incident or harrowing detail: Raped at 14 by the man she believes is her father; her two children taken from her at birth; passed from one oppressive man to another; inured to drudgery and abuse; her sister, the only person she truly loves, torn from her life. But despite LaChanze’s honest, giving performance, Celie is consistently the least intriguing figure onstage.
It’s members of her extended family that bring the musical to life, first feisty Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), a woman of formidable will who refuses to be a slave to any man; and then earthy Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes), the brassy honky-tonk singer who provides Celie with her first experience of romantic love and sexual fulfillment.
In addition to supplying the most vivid perfs, they also score some of the musical’s most engaging numbers — Fields in the fired-up refusal to be subjugated “Hell No!” and the frisky duet (with Brandon Victor Dixon) “Any Little Thing,” Withers-Mendes in the pulsating hymn to raunchy good times, “Push Da Button.”
In an honorable but ultimately laborious attempt to harness all of Walker’s themes, Norman’s book plods through the various chapters, shuffling far too many characters and refusing to make the kind of streamlining choices that could have given the overlong show clarity, nuance and immediacy. Celie’s initially brutal, later remorseful husband, Mister (Kingsley Leggs); her weak but essentially good-natured stepson Harpo (Dixon); her loving sister, Nettie (Renee Elise Goldsberry); and Harpo’s plucky girlfriend Squeak (Krisha Marcano) all have illuminating moments. But nobody really sticks around long enough to become a fleshed-out character or knits together well enough to establish the sense of community so central to the book and even the movie.
Like the film, the interlude in Africa, tracking Nettie’s years as a missionary with Celie’s children, feels like a separate narrative grafted onto the action, rather than an integrated part of the flow. (Poetic flow, in general, is a quality sorely absent in this lumpy retelling; as a linking device, the Greek chorus of gossiping church ladies doesn’t work.)
There’s a distinct visual shift from John Lee Beatty’s robust, rustic design of weather-beaten wood and gnarled trees to a more stylized African motif and some muscular balletic work from the ensemble — the standout contribution from otherwise underused choreographer Donald Byrd. But the lack of cohesion might make some auds feel they’ve wandered back from intermission into “The Lion King” by mistake.
The show’s design work generally is striking; while Brian MacDevitt’s lighting takes its cue too eagerly from Spielberg with an excess of florid, rainbow-hued skyscapes, the stage pictures often are bold and impressive.
Written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, three experienced songsmiths new to musical theater, the score is an agreeable stew of gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and soulful pop that sounds like ’80s-era Dionne Warwick. Like everything else in the show, the musical elements are a far-from-seamless mix, alternating flat stretches with stirring peaks, and too many songs feel incomplete.
But when the cast gathers onstage for the title number’s uplifting final reprise, the mainstream auds to whom this show is pitched will go out on a feel-good high, elevated by Walker’s affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.