Alice Walker’s intense, epistolary feminist novel morphed into a Steven Spielberg bigscreen drama and then morphed again into an Oprah-endorsed Broadway musical that weathered mixed reviews to become a hit. In this particularly vibrant, high-quality touring version launching in Chicago, the show sheds another layer of the original story’s darkness, with less emphasis on the adversity, more on the triumph over it. “The Color Purple” now lands pretty squarely, and surprisingly comfortably, in the realm of musical comedy.
Even suggesting such a thing will seem odd for those who recall being overpowered by the aching expressiveness of the novel — which has elements of incest, violence and lesbianism — prior to its full entry into the commercial mainstream. But if the show, like the film, induces an emotional reaction far less complex than Walker’s prose, this musical now feels truer to itself than it did in New York. This production has the ultra-confident Sofia’s swagger even before that infectious character enters in the form of local Chicago thesp Felicia P. Fields, reprising her Tony-nominated role.
Directed by another Chicagoan, Gary Griffin, the staging feels significantly larger than most touring shows, with a seeming cast of thousands (OK, a couple dozen plus). While John Lee Beatty’s sets have been adapted some, they’re just as expansive as before, and Brian MacDevitt’s dynamic lighting, while obviously inspired by the film, still feels fresh.
Even more than the production values, though, this version has a certain comic sizzle to it. Punchlines get hit with added pizzazz, and tone seems defined more by the three Church Ladies, who form a comical chorus of community gossips, than by the early scenes of emotional and physical abuse.
Like Fields, the terrific Jeannette Bayardelle also comes from Broadway, having replaced Tony winner LaChanze as Celie. Her early monologues — where she asks God what’s happening to her — although brief, express the damage that her father’s rape and the subsequent taking away of her children have done to her. Bayardelle also can belt with the best of them. To her credit she sounds fantastic not just solo but sharing the duets, particularly with LaToya London as Celie’s sister Nettie.
There are some definite sacrifices in this production. The passage of time doesn’t seem to be communicated as carefully as on Broadway. And, as Celie’s husband Mister, Rufus Bonds Jr. just isn’t scary or sinister enough, robbing his redemptive character arc of emotional heft later on.
But there’s also a genuinely revelatory performance from Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child as super-sexy Shug Avery. Shug tends to get overshadowed by the admirable Sofia, but not in this case. Williams brings an authentic glamour to the role, making it instantly believable that all the men in town would drop everything — including their families — to spend time just looking at her. And Williams’ version of the songs — she goes straight from the sweet “Too Beautiful for Words” to the burlesque “Push Da Button” — stands out as contemporary and unique.
If Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray’s score seemed sufficient but lacking in distinctiveness and cohesion, Williams takes the mix of R& B, gospel and Broadway pop sounds and makes the fusion seem purposeful.
Williams star power might help the show as it moves on, although for the time being there shouldn’t be too much struggle for “The Color Purple.” The question is not its initial success on the road but its endurance; even in Chicago, the producers have tamped down once-high expectations of a sit-down run, selling tix only through July 22.
Speaking of star power, Oprah Winfrey shared hers generously on opening night, taking the stage for a curtain speech to an adoring crowd. Her imprimatur has been particularly key for this show, since she started her own career ascent playing Sofia in the film. Winfrey talked about trying to get everyone to read “The Color Purple” when it was published. “That was before I had a book club,” she quipped, bringing to mind how far she, and Walker’s novel, have evolved into popular culture.