Thursday, December 10, 2015

She's Here, and Not to be Ignored

Review: The Color Purple

Cynthia Erivo (center) and the cast of The Color Purple.

Near the end of the rafter rattling opening number of The Color Purple, protagonist Celie gives birth. In keeping with helmer John Doyle's minimalist directorial concept, actress Cynthia Erivo symbolizes this act by pulling a plain white sheet from underneath her dress and slowly, methodically folding it into the shape of a newborn in swaddling clothing. And right before our eyes, this plain white sheet becomes the living, breathing object of Celie's unconditional love thanks to the actress' unmatched level of commitment. Erivo holds this sheet as if it is sacred, staring lovingly into eyes that aren't there and conjuring up a living, breathing child through sheer force of will. This type of primal theatrical magic permeates Doyle's sensational staging, and this opening tableau gives us our first indication that Erivo's performance is one for the ages.

For those who have yet to experience The Color Purple in any of its many forms - including Alice Walker's original Pulitzer Prize-winning novel or Stephen Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film adaptation - the narrative details how the constantly abused Celie slowly learns to love herself and her life, no matter how difficult her circumstances become. The plot tackles such weighty issues as rape, domestic abuse, and the ever-present specter of racial oppression before arriving at its ultimately uplifting, life-affirming climax. Like the novel on which it is based, this adaptation deftly avoids becoming maudlin or preachy thanks to a first rate book by playwright Marsha Norman and a powerful, gospel-influenced score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray. Only the most stone-hearted audience members will remain unmoved by Celie's journey, and even though the story's resolution is clearly telegraphed from early on that doesn't make the denouement any less affecting when it finally occurs.

The show's original Broadway incarnation received mixed reviews, ostensibly due to the distraction of the large physical production but more likely because despite what we claim to want New York critics are generally unforgiving of new work. Thankfully director John Doyle's stripped down production is so focused on The Color Purple's powerful narrative you cannot help but recognize its raw, visceral impact. Doyle's staging is lean and muscular, conceptual in a way that draws the audience in rather than pushes them away. The simple wooden set, comprised of a few platforms and an imposing wall of chairs, feels intensely personal, as if we and the other characters have been graciously allowed into the uncharted waters of Celie's psyche. Only a few times does Doyle's direction veer into pretentiousness - his handling of the ballad "What About Love" feels particularly heavy handed, and blunts the impact of both the song and the major plot reveal that occurs immediately afterwards - but the Scottish-born director also provides the show with such a singular vision that he must be commended, even for the choices that don't quite work.

He has also found a genuine star in Erivo, whose towering performance in the central role provides this production with its heart and soul. Despite near-constant abuse by the men in her life, Erivo's Celie remains a magnificent creature with an almost regal air about her. Erivo nobly endures the many injustices foisted upon Celie and her loved ones, slowly internalizing her character's anger until it threatens to consume her. With Erivo's piercing, powerful belt voice, Celie's many solos become plaintive wails for attention, the anguished cries of a woman who doesn't know how else to express her overwhelming frustration with life. This Celie is a powder keg waiting to explode, and when she finally hits her breaking point in Act II it is both cathartic and terrifying. And yet Erivo smartly keeps an undercurrent of kind-heartedness and even optimism running throughout her performance, providing the foundation for her soul stirring rendition of the show's eleven o'clock anthem "I'm Here." Erivo is the real deal, and by all accounts the multiple standing ovations she earned at the performance I attended are a regular occurrence.

The production's other above the title star is Oscar- and Grammy-winner Jennifer Hudson, making her long-awaited Broadway debut in a performance that is both everything you might have hoped and entirely unexpected. Hudson plays Shug Avery, the free-spirited lounge singer who wheels into Celie's life and completely upends it for the better. Hudson's vocals are every bit as powerful live as they are on CD, but the most impressive thing about her handling of Shug is how often she chooses not to strong-arm her way through the musical numbers. The score provides Shug with several its most beautiful ballads, and Hudson proves her maturity as both a musician and a performer in the way she caresses and croons them. She has enough confidence to know she doesn't have to belt every note, which makes the moments when she does cut loose all the more thrilling (her rendition of "Push Da Button" will leave you breathless). It must be admitted that Hudson remains a better singer than actress, but she is nonetheless effective during her book scenes, and her refusal to rest on the laurels of her famous name and window-rattling voice is much appreciated.

Isaiah Johnson is something of a revelation in the role of Celie's abusive husband Mister. He is often the villain of the piece, although one of the many joys of The Color Purple is that it refuses to pigeonhole any of its characters. And Johnson is legitimately scary as he paces the stage, looking ready to pounce on Celie and her compatriots at any second. But from early on Johnson makes it clear that Mister's rage stems from his disgust and frustration with his own life, and he completely sells the character's emotional epiphany during "Mister's Song." Danielle Brooks is a force of nature as Sophia, who marries Celie's stepson Harpo and is the first woman to show Celie she doesn't have to blindly accept whatever injustice the men of the world dish out. Sophia's defiant anthem "Hell No" has always been a crowd pleaser, and in Brooks' hands remains one the show's musical highlights. And in the small but pivotal role of Celie's sister Nettie, Joaquina Kalukango is just about perfect.

The one misfire among the principal cast is Kyle Scatliffe as Harpo. Scatliffe seems content to let the cognitive disconnect of a man with his towering frame being dominated by much smaller women provide most of his characterization, failing to do anything with the multitudinous other possibilities the text provides him. This ends up undermining not only his character but Brooks' Sophia as well; it is extremely difficult for Sophia to provide Celie with an example of a strong woman standing up to her husband when Scatliffe's Harpo is such a wet blanket that seemingly anyone can cause him to throw in the towel. The only part of Scatliffe's performance that makes an impression is his Act II duet with Brooks, "Any Little Thing;" it's a shame the actor hasn't figured out how to bring the playful, loving confidence he displays there into other sections of the show.

But if the worst complaint that can be leveled against The Color Purple is that Scatliffe's Harpo isn't very interesting, then overall things are going extremely well. This is a powerful piece of theatre whose deeper themes and lessons are highlighted and underscored by John Doyle's simple but effective direction. He has removed anything resembling bloat and focused entirely on the emotional journey of Celie, who is a more clearly the protagonist here than in the show's original incarnation.  It helps that Doyle has the phenomenal Cynthia Erivo in the central role, with the actress providing an endlessly fascinating, superbly acted and sensationally sung take on Celie that will have you rooting for her throughout the duration of the evening. Jennifer Hudson, Danielle Brooks, and the majority of the supporting cast all provide able bodied support, and even Scatliffe's Harpo is more of a missed opportunity than an outright problem. A production of this level of polish and emotional impact is a blessing, and every theatregoer should be grateful for it.


  1. Do you think the show will easily win the Tony for Best Revival Of A Musical and Cynthia Errivo for Best Actress In A Musical?

    1. I definitely think Cynthia Erivo is the woman to beat for Best Actress in a Musical, *but* keep in mind Audra McDonald is coming back to Broadway in the spring. Having not seen McDonald's performance I still think Erivo will win, but I've learned never to underestimate McDonald's brilliance.

      The Best Revival category is already very competitive ("Spring Awakening," "Color Purple," and "Fiddler on the Roof" all got excellent reviews), but right now I'd agree that "Color Purple" is the show to beat.

      It will be a very exciting Tony season!

  2. The cast recording just won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, beating out Bright Star, Fiddler On The Roof, Kinky Boots (West End Cast) and Waitress. Cynthia Erivo is now officially halfway towards EGOT status.