- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

The Great White Way is littered with the sorry carcasses of celebrities — Usher, Debbie Gibson, Rosie O’Donnell come to mind — who’ve attempted to star in a Broadway show.

So, does an “American Idol” winner have the chops to pull off a major role in an emotionally complex musical?

The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Fantasia, the 2004 “Idol” winner, has the voice — powerful and tremulous with feeling — and the presence to make an indelible Celie in the musical version of Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple.”

It’s not as if she chose something lightweight — like “Shrek” — to make her Broadway debut. “The Color Purple” delves head-on into incest, racism, bisexuality, the cycle of violence and family rifts. Yet the story also manages to be affirming in its depiction of the daily routines and hardships of black life in the rural South from 1911 to the late 1940s. It’s disturbing to watch Celie’s maltreatment by her father (David Aron Damane) and her cruel husband, Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.). However, it’s also miraculous to watch Celie’s transformation from a skittish woman with downcast eyes and a beaten-down demeanor into someone who gradually awakens into her beauty, talents and unshakable right to be loved.

“The Color Purple” centers on Celie’s struggles, as told through her letters to God, as well as the women who figure in her life: her sister Nettie (Fantasia’s fellow 2004 “Idol” finalist La Toya London), who is determined to escape a life of victimization and drudgery; the freewheeling blues singer Shug Avery (Angela Robinson), beloved by both Celie and Mister; and the inimitable Sofia (Felicia P. Fields), the pugilistic, takes-no-guff wife of Celie’s stepson Harpo (Stu James).

The musical numbers flow into one another, giving the show buoyancy and grit. The score ranges from the flat-out escalating emotion of “I’m Here” and “Too Beautiful for Words” to the outright joy of sex expressed in Shug’s raucous juke-joint number “Push da Button” and “Brown Betty.” Especially noteworthy is “Any Little Thing,” sung by Miss Fields and Mr. James as a naughty novelty number (complete with comic dirty dancing) that conveys the message that the home fires are still burning in Sofia’s and Harpo’s marriage.

The show’s themes of transcendence and redemption are conveyed through songs that have a contemporary, R&B; feel, but they also incorporate gospel, blues, ragtime jazz, and doo-wop and boogie-woogie sounds. The musical’s set, by John Lee Beatty, borrows abundantly from Steven Spielberg’s 1985 Oscar-nominated movie version, with its sun-baked palette of yellows, earth tones and touches of dusty purple. A huge, lacy tree serves as a canopy that both harbors and looms oppressively over Celie. This earthy palette yields to brilliant blues and greens in the lavishly ceremonial opening dance number in the second act depicting Nettie’s description of Africa in her letters. The eye-popping colors and patterns in Paul Tazewell’s costumes wonderfully complement an array of body types, and his caramel- and flame-colored beaded gown for Shug is a show stopper.

“The Color Purple” defies the current trend of jukebox musicals and shows based on cartoons. With its strengthening message and richness of emotion, it is truth in the footlights.

RATING: …1/2

WHAT: “The Color Purple,” music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, libretto by Marsha Norman; based on the novel by Alice Walker

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. No evening performance July 4. Through Aug. 9.

TICKETS: $25 to $95

PHONE: 800/444-1324

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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