Monday, March 14, 2016

The Color Purple: Voices

Cynthia Erivo in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

When Cynthia Erivo opens her mouth to sing in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, she looks as if she’s been touched with grace, and the music that pours out is honeyed gospel. I can’t remember the last time I heard a musical-theatre performer who commanded so much unfiltered power and possessed such purity of tone. The songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray were obviously written to be delivered with this kind of full-throated intensity – singing that carries the force of the north wind behind it. (I didn’t see the original production, which starred LaChanze and opened in 2005.) The first ensemble number, “Mysterious Ways,” a hymn by a black Baptist preacher (Lawrence Clayton) in small-town Georgia and his congregation, practically rips the seats out of the theatre. It’s in the tradition of “Leavin’ Time” from Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s St. Louis Woman and “Walk Him Up the Stairs” from Gary Geld and Peter Udell’s Purlie.

The reason I skipped the first Broadway iteration of this musical was that, after the 1982 Alice Walker novel and the 1986 Steven Spielberg movie, I felt I’d had it with The Color Purple. The book has a strong first sixty or seventy pages. It’s in the form of letters by its heroine, Celie, and the language is vibrant and inventive in the early sections of her story, when she’s passed from a rapist father (known only as Pa) to a cold-hearted husband (known only as Mister) who works her like a slave and banishes her sister Nettie – the only light in Celie’s life – after she rejects his advances. (I have to add, though, that, in her novel Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith pulled off this kind of first-person perspective in the voice of an uneducated young woman with more panache.) The book loses its gleam when it descends into simple-minded consciousness-raising, but at least it’s a legitimate expression of someone’s point of view; the movie, with its cutesy, Disneyfied reading of Walker’s characters, is embarrassing – Spielberg has never seemed so out of sync with his material. But it’s been three decades since the picture was released, and the revival of the show, directed by the maddeningly inconsistent John Doyle, has prompted so much enthusiasm that I grew curious about what The Color Purple might be like under the narrative constrictions of a musical. It turns out that, in musical form, the rambling, incident-crowded plot (which takes place over the course forty years) feels even nuttier than I remembered. The blues singer, Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson), sometime mistress of Celie’s husband (Isaiah Johnson), arrives from Memphis and liberates Celie, body and spirit. Celie ends up walking out on Mister and designing pants. It turns out that Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), who she feared was dead, has been raising Celie’s children – the progeny of her incestuous attacks by their father, whom he took from her as soon as they were born – somewhere in Africa, and that Mister has been hiding her letters to Celie for years. Then there’s an ancillary plot involving Mister’s son Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), whose tough, forthright wife Sofia (Danielle Brooks) is beaten and thrown in jail for refusing to work as a maid for a white woman. (The moments I recall with pleasure from the Spielberg movie are from Oprah Winfrey’s portrayal of Sofia.)

Kyle Scatliffe and Isaiah Johnson in The Color Purple. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Reduced in length – that is, squeezed between songs in a two-and-a-half-hour running time – the material, adapted by Marsha Norman, veers between melodrama and cartoon. The Hugo-Sofia story falls in the latter category, especially his dalliance with a high-pitched young woman appropriately named Squeak (Patrice Covington) – though it has one high point, a duet between Scatliffe and Brooks called “Any Little Thing” that’s more or less like the comic duet “Her Is” from The Pajama Game but with a honky-tonk flavor. The Celie plot, of course, is melodrama of a distinctly self-actualizing stripe. This is the kind of show in which the heroine belts out a lyric like “I may be poor / I may be black / I may be ugly / But I’m here!” and all over the house people leap to their feet to applaud and cheer. To put it mildly, this sort of breast-beating affirmation isn’t my cup of tea. Still, I’m not sorry I saw the musical, which has energy and spirit and staggering vocal instruments all through the cast. Aside from Erivo’s, I was particularly struck by Johnson’s and by Kalukango’s. She has a complexly sweet face like Taraji P. Henson’s; I recognized him from a number of other shows, like the Al Pacino Merchant of Venice and the Kevin Spacey Richard III. Danielle Brooks has a hell of a growling contralto, but she milks everything. She’s best (because least assertive) on “Any Little Thing,” which comes late in the show and finally gives Scatliffe a chance to show off his great R&B voice.

Jennifer Hudson is a little out of step with this crowd, partly because she understates (as if she were acting for the camera, her usual venue) and partly because she’s not really suited for a vamp role. Her cabaret number, “Push da Button,” doesn’t fit her style at all. But she comes to life when she sings ballads like “Too Beautiful for Words” and “What About Love?”, the first-act finale, a duet with Erivo, and especially the title song. The music is middle-of-the-road, but some of it is fun, like the doo-wop ensemble number “Miss Celie’s Pants,” and some of it has a pop sweep and sticks to your brain. I had the title song in my head for an hour after the final curtain fell, and that wasn’t an unpleasant fate.

Doyle designed his own set, a tall wooden drop with chairs hanging off it that the members of the ensemble pull down and use in a variety of ways. It reminded me of the set for his production of Sweeney Todd, but it’s effective, and so is the staging. Ann Hould-Ward designed the lively costumes, the best of which are the varieties of trousers Celie puts her name to. The fine lighting is by Jane Cox, who collaborated with Doyle on the two musicals he mounted for the Classic Stage Company, Passion (one of his best shows) and Allegro.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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