The cultural significance of Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" reflects on the works of the literary foremother of African-American feminist writers, Zora Neale Hurston, as much of Walker's riveting book explores the drastic situation black women faced and often continue to face in this unprogressive country. Whereas Hurston's short story, "Sweat," examines a slightly more fatal outcome in an African-American woman's punishing her abusive husband, "The Color Purple," in its original literary form, confronts such abuse in vivid detail, though ultimately lends itself to a more cheerful ending, as its protagonist, Celie, comes to peaceful terms with her supposedly reformed husband, Mister. Cheery or not, Walker and Hurston penned exemplary literary works of abused women taking their lives back from an oppressive society.
Transforming such a momentous story into a staged musical, as bookwriter Marsha Norman has done with The Color Purple, could not have been an easy task. The novel spans nearly a lifetime, following Celie from her childhood despair in the hands of a sexually abusive stepfather to her equally depressing time married to Mister, a cheating and cruel husband. What has ended up on stage, both on Broadway and on a National Tour currently playing at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre, more closely resembles a Disney spin on history, rather than a gritty realization of historical abuse.
Norman has removed nearly all uncomfortable moments of molestation and rape Celie describes in Walker's book, when her character writes to God asking for a sense of identity, one which she does not fully understand until the latter years of her life, after realizing a woman is more than capable of living out from under the clutches of any man. While such a creative decision might lend itself to a more familial appeal for audiences, it leaves the production without a deep emotional core, as does the musical's overall structure, as it skips so quickly over the book's timeline leaving few moments to absorb any one scene, basically feeling like a stunted summary, a factor director Gary Griffin does nothing to correct.
Where the production makes up for its literary shortcomings is through its music, nicely crafted by composers-lyricists Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. The Color Purple strikes a soulful chord with a gospel and jazz aged sensibility, giving the musical an otherwise absent poignant heartbeat. There are a few numbers sounding more like a clich้ Sunday morning gospel choir, although the title song, along with a steamy "Push Da Button" now a cabaret standard "What About Love" and Celie's defining moment, "I'm Here," are joyous pleasures.
Working with the slightly vapid stage characterization provided, Jeannete Bayardelle breathes as much life as possible into Celie, at times showing her deserved spot understudying LaChanze who won a Tony Award for the role in the original Broadway production. During the first act Bayardelle appears somewhat uneasy in the character, but as the curtain rises on the second half she captures the necessary strength to drive the story to its powerful end.
Most welcome to the touring production is Felicia P. Fields, reprising her Tony-nominated turn as the no-nonsense and larger than life Sofia, locking horns with every ignorant man thrown her way. When Fields spouts out "Hell No!," audiences are left with nothing to do but moan in agreement and cheer for the ultimate sentiment of feminist power. Sofia works as one of two opposites provided for Celie, showing the extremes of equality within reach for African-American females in the early twentieth century.
On the other end of the feminine spectrum in The Color Purple is Shug Avery, sexily vamped up by Michelle Williams, of Destiny's Child fame. Her sultry vocals and extreme beauty bubble up splendidly while Shug acts as temptress to Celie, Mister and every other hot-blooded male in the South. This pivotal role, however, requires a stronger dramatic understanding, which Williams is unable to provide. Much like the production itself, the singer is more adept at delivering her musical numbers than fully rounding out Shug with substance.
Injecting a sense of comic relief, albeit far too often, are The Church Ladies (Lynette DuPree, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Kimberly Ann Harris), recalling the Urchins in Little Shop of Horrors as they cheekily sing exposition. And while the show is a story primarily about the feminist movement, the musical's two key male roles, Mister and Harpo, receive more than able realizations from Rufus Bonds, Jr. and Stu James, respectively.
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and Paul Tazewell's costumes provide The Color Purple's true beauty, painting a colorful picture of the Deep South, including one scene in particular, Harpo's Juke Joint, which is so coolly visualized. Dream-like flashes to Africa, as Celie's sister Nettie begins telling of missionary journeys, take on a more stain-glassed look, fittingly more surreal than any other sets.
Walker's words, "You're poor, you're black, you're ugly, you're a woman," as spewed by Mister at Celie, define everything African American women struggle with, and while in the novel that enormous female battle is thoroughly dealt with, the musical The Color Purple is full of enough secondary pleasures and cultural significance to earn its place as an important Broadway creation.
The Color Purple runs through March 9, 2008 at the Ahmanson Theatre, located at 135 North Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. Tickets are available by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at (213) 628-2772, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office or on-line at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Photos by Paul Kolnik - (1) Michelle Williams, Felicia P. Fields, Stephanie St. James and Rufus Bonds Jr. (2) Jeannette Bayardelle and Michelle Williams.