This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

18Jan/16

THE COLOR PURPLE

(photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015)

Sisters Celie (Cynthia Erivo) and Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango) enjoy a beautiful moment before being separated in THE COLOR PURPLE (photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015)

Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 1, $75 - $195
colorpurple.com

The Color Purple achieves the extremely rare, elusive grand slam with its stirring new Broadway revival. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her 1982 novel about a horribly abused and mistreated girl in the Depression-era American South. Stephen Spielberg’s 1985 film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, was nominated for eleven Oscars (but won none). In 2005, the book and film were turned into a Broadway musical, earning ten Tony nominations and winning one (LaChanze for Best Performance by a Leading Actress). And now the revival is poised for yet more awards in a streamlined version at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. London native Cynthia Erivo makes a rousing Broadway debut as Celie, a fourteen-year-old Georgia girl whose pa (Kevyn Morrow) has gotten rid of her two children and is trying to pawn her off on a nasty farmer known as Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who would prefer to marry Celie’s younger sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango). “She worse than I thought,” Mister complains. “Don’t even look like kin to Nettie. Maybe I —” Pa cuts him off by saying, “Maybe you’ll put Celie in charge of yo chirren fore they git big enough to kill you in the night.” Mister’s son, Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), has married the bold, strong Sofia (Danielle Brooks), who isn’t going to tolerate any disrespect. “Wives is like chirren,” Mister tells his son. “Nothing better for ’em than a good sound beating,” to which Sofia responds with “Hell No!,” a defiant number delivered with power and grace by Brooks, singing out for women everywhere. “Why you so scared / I’ll never know / But if a man / raise his hand, / Hell no!” she declares. The town is soon sent into a furor when Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson) returns, a popular singer whom all the men, including Mister, one of her many former lovers, melt over. “Drinkin’ all the gin / Lovin’ all the mens / Strumpet in a short skirt / Got no pride!” the women sing, while the men proclaim, “Oh Lord, let me cross / into her promised land.” Shug takes a liking to Celie while also still desiring Mister, setting up a conflict in which Celie must decide whether she can have a better life.

(photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015)

Director and set designer John Doyle turns the Jacobs Theatre into a juke joint in streamlined, intimate revival (photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015)

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman (’night, Mother; The Secret Garden) and with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, The Color Purple is a beautifully rendered revival, evoking the book and film while also standing on its own. Two-time Tony-winning director John Doyle (Sweeney Todd, Company) keeps things relatively simple. His folksy set features ramshackle wooden walls on which dozens of chairs hang, essentially the only props used in the production; the characters take the chairs off the walls, sit on them, then put them back; the many extra chairs serve as a kind of invitation to the audience to be part of this close-knit community. Norman carefully navigates the characters’ religious faith, avoiding preachy moments; Celie tells Shug at one point, “I prayed to God my whole life and what he done. Nuthin’.” Shug replies, “Celie, you better hush. God might hear you,” to which Celie responds, “Let ’im hear me. If God ever listened to a poor colored woman, the world would be a different place.” Rising British star Erivo (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Sister Act) and Brooks (Taystee on Orange Is the New Black) are smashing in their Broadway debuts, the former bringing down the house with the legitimate showstopper “I’m Here,” the latter a force all her own as Sofia, who represents so much of the pain and suffering experienced by African Americans, as well as the determination to ultimately fight back. Carrie Compere, Bre Jackson, and Rema Webb are delightful as the three gossiping church ladies who form a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the proceedings with a clever sense of humor; Compere in particular has an impressive presence and theater-rattling voice that should lead to bigger roles. Surprisingly, the weakest part of the show are the songs given to Hudson (Dreamgirls, The Secret Life of Bees) in her Broadway debut; Hudson is laden with standard, syrupy ballads that don’t fit in with the rest of the Gospel and R&B numbers, although her costumes, by Ann Hould-Ward, are divine. The Color Purple has turned the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre into a thrilling, inspirational juke joint, bringing yet another life to Walker’s remarkable story.

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