The ladies wear the pants in John Doyle’s ravishing revival of “The Color Purple.” Jennifer Hudson is radiant as the love machine Shug Avery. Danielle Brooks shakes the house as the earthy Sofia. And Cynthia Erivo, the tiny pint of dynamite who originated the role at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, brings the audience roaring to its feet as Celie, the shamefully abused heroine of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker that started the whole book-to-film-to-stage phenomenon. All three performers are making their Broadway debuts, which makes it all the more thrilling.
In a feat of reverse magic, Doyle’s minimalist production maximizes the strength and beauty of Marsha Norman’s book about the suffering of Celie (Erivo) at the hands of abusive men, and the painful sacrifices she makes to protect her beloved sister, Nettie (the lovely Joaquina Kalukango), from the same kind of cruelty.
In Erivo’s haunting performance, Celie’s acts of sacrifice are made from the strength she draws from her love for Nettie. Her sexual submission to her father is an act of bravery because it keeps him out of Nettie’s bed. Her marriage to the cruel, whip-wielding man she calls Mister (Isaiah Johnson, snapping that whip like he means it) is the same kind of selfless act.
As Alice Walker made abundantly clear in her novel, rural Georgia in 1909 was a harsh place for poor, uneducated black women like Celie, who were essentially servants to their fathers and husbands. The austere set (of the director’s own design) brilliantly illustrates that harshness with a floor-to-ceiling wall of raw wood planks hung with dozens of unfinished wooden chairs. We can practically feel the splinters in those rough boards and the hard seats of those stiff-backed chairs. In the earthy tones of Jane Cox’s lighting design, the sun always seems to be setting on this fertile but unforgiving land.
Even the brown hues of Ann Hould-Ward’s unadorned period costumes tells us that life was hard for black people in the early days of the 20th century. Since only the church (and maybe a jook joint deep in the woods) offers some comfort, it’s only right that the show should open its heart with a joyous gospel number (“Mysterious Ways”) that just about raises the roof. Between the celestial voices of the choir and the lively gossip of three wonderful Church Ladies (played to perfection by Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson and Rema Webb), church is the jolliest show in town.
Beyond the full company numbers (orchestrated with admirable clarity by Joseph Joubert), the score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray has a sweeping populist appeal, sensitive to each character’s specific lyric mood, from the broken-hearted lullaby Celie sings to the infant her father forces her to give away (“Somebody Gonna Love You”) to the blast of sass that Sofia delivers as her anthem of independence (“Hell No!”) and the empowering words of encouragement (“Too Beautiful for Words”) that Shug sings to comfort Celie.
Both the beauty and the brains of the score are evident in the fact that each character’s signature song belongs only to that character. Hudson, gorgeous to look at and blessed with that incredible voice, is perfectly cast as the voluptuous sexpot Shug Avery, Memphis lounge singer and killer of men. When Shug shows up (in a fabulous flapper dress that swishes when she shakes it) at the juke joint owned by Sofia’s husband, Harpo (that great big wonderful lug Kyle Scatliffe), every man in town shows up prepared to die happy. The raunchy song she sings — “Push da Button” — is hers and hers alone.
In the same way, the song that Celie sings at the end of the show to let the world know that she’s alive and happy at last — the show-stopping “I’m Here” — is the pure, proud voice of Celie and Celie alone. It’s been a long, hard journey up from hell, but she’s home at last.