- The Washington Times - Friday, May 2, 2008

With its spirit-strengthening music and exalted performances, the musical version of “The Color Purple” is permeated with richness and emotion.

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel transfers to the stage with its toughness and soaring sense of triumph intact and is heightened by a score that’s a multitextured tapestry of blues, funk, gospel, boogie-woogie and contemporary soul-pop.

“The Color Purple” tells a story of transcendence and redemption as seen through the eyes of Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle, a singer and actress of staggering power), a poor and embattled black woman living in the rural South from 1911 through the 1940s. The show centers on Celie’s struggles and those of the women in her life — her whip-smart and resolute younger sister Nettie (LaTonya Holmes, who filled in on opening night for LaToya London, the regular actress in the role); the alluring and unconventional juke-joint singer Shug Avery (sultry-voiced Angela Robinson, who conveys sexuality as a potent life force rather than something puerile or coarse); and Sofia (Felicia P. Fields, a powerhouse of attitude and friskiness), the outspoken and out-loud wife of her stepson Harpo (Rhett George, heartfelt as the henpecked spouse).

It also depicts Celie’s escape from the men who tried to extinguish her spirit — first, her pedophile father (Quentin Earl Darrington) and then her mean and controlling husband, Mister (Rufus Bonds Jr., who allows us to see the tortured humanity within a tyrant).

The musical numbers, which flow seamlessly into one another, give the show buoyancy and grit, ranging from the flat-out emotion of the plaintive “Somebody Gonna Love You” and the stirring showstoppers “I’m Here” and “Too Beautiful for Words” to the bawdy joy expressed in the numbers “Push Da Button” (which definitely is not about automation), “Brown Betty” and “Any Little Thing”— a joyous ode to mature hanky-panky sung with naughty glee by Miss Fields and Mr. George.



The look of the show owes much to Steven Spielberg’s movie version. The palette of sun-drenched yellows and ochers seen in John Lee Beatty’s set features a huge, lacy tree that both shelters and looms oppressively over Celie. In the vibrant opening to the second act, the rich earth tones give way to verdant greens and jewellike blues as the setting moves to Nettie’s fanciful evocation of Africa in a lavishly ceremonial dance number. Paul Tazewell’s lustrous-hued costumes are lovingly complementary to an array of body shapes, and the beadwork on Shug Avery’s chocolate and caramel-colored gown is alone worth the price of admission.

In a time when most Broadway musicals are lighthearted, escapist fare, “The Color Purple” delves head-on into incest, racism, bisexuality, the cycle of violence and family rifts. While it is often wrenching to watch Celie’s maltreatment — with Miss Bayardelle’s slumped shoulders, downcast eyes and wary edginess conveying volumes about the effects of abuse on the body and soul — “The Color Purple” is ultimately uplifting in its depiction of one woman’s gradual awakening into love and her realization of her inner beauty and outer worth.

***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; directed by Gary Griffin

WHERE: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 18.

TICKETS: $34 to $125

PHONE: 800/547-7328

WEB SITE: www.BroadwayAcross America.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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