'The Color Purple' still opens our eyes
Popular book and film inform uplifting musical
It was impossible to ignore the irony of watching the opening night of "The Color Purple" on a day when Arizona voted against affirmative action and equal opportunity.
That said, the fictional story of Celie Harris is, hopefully, less about race (though it can not and should not be discounted) and more about our humanity and the range of cruelty and joy that we are capable of experiencing.
The musical blends Alice Walker's heartbreaking novel with Steve Speilberg's iconic film to create a third version of the story. On stage, the pain and cruelty of the novel are felt but not shown, while the rich visual tone of the film is often reenacted.
Most people are familiar with "The Color Purple" story through the 1985 movie. It established Whoopi Goldberg as a star and helped launch Oprah Winfrey's empire.
Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is more dense and detailed. It is written as a series of letters, first by the fourteen year old Celie to God, and then by correspondence with her beloved sister, Nettie.
The story follows Celie's life over 40 years from an unschooled and helpless girl to discovering and claiming her power and personal freedom as an adult. The tale comes full circle when the independent Celie is finally reunited with her long-lost children and Nettie. In all three versions, the story is a classic hero's journey with a deeply emotional payoff.
The Broadway musical production was first mounted in 2005, produced by Winfrey. In trying to cover more of Walker's original narrative than the film, the musical version, particularly in the first act, is very fast-paced.
Unfortunately, this allows little time for more than a cursory familiarity with the characters and no time for actual character development. Throughout the musical, we see the results of change in Celie's life, but are not allowed savor what those changes mean. The exception is her relationship with blues singer Shug Avery, who is her husband's mistress and eventually Celie's lover, also.
Act II starts with an invention for the musical version, "African Homelands," the show's biggest song and dance production number. This Lion King moment is so glorious to watch that it is easy to forget that it is grafted on and not part of the source material.
The 25 member cast (24 on opening night because of a cast substitution) all have the extensive singing and dancing skills expected of a national touring company. There is no shortage of sculpted beefcake among the field hands or exquisite trio harmony singing by the church ladies.
Dayna Jarae Dantzler overall did a wonderful job as Celie. Her character's physical transformation over 40 years, from joyful girl playing with her sister, to bedraggled wife in thrall to her husband, and finally proud and self-assured mature woman, was expressive and convincing.
On opening night, only her closing solo, "I'm Here," seemed to lack the full tone and timbre that the moment required, causing a slight lag in the emotional groundswell to the finale.
The musical also gives more emphasis to Shug Avery over (Winfrey's) Sofia character. Taprena Augustine as Shug provided the sass and sensuality to highlight her difference from Celie. Interestingly, her voice has more of the nuance of a recording artist than the power of a theatrical singer. As a result, her singing was in contrast with more robust voices on stage. As Sofia, Pam Trotter was clearly capable of blowing everyone off the stage with the double-barrel power of her character and her singing, but held it down a notch in the interest of the ensemble.
Although this musical has been around for five years, the songs remain unfamiliar — none have found a life outside of the production. The score — chugging boogie, light pop, classic Broadway — is enjoyable but not memorable. Where the music does soar is in the gospel numbers, with sure, tiered harmonies that were almost as uplifting as the story itself.
In general, the musical "The Color Purple" reinforces rather than competes with the book and movie. It is certainly less violent, never showing explicitly the abuse and near-slave conditions Celie endures. It maintains the original themes of incest, social injustice and domestic violence, though in a more coded way. There are some earthy moments — dirty-dancing in the paean to sexual satisfaction of Shug's number, "Push Da Button," and in the implied sexual relationship between Shug and Celie.
Familiarity with either Walker's book or Speilberg's movie is nearly a prerequisite to appreciating the musical version. Because the narrative events on stage move so quickly, with years gone by in only a line or two, knowledge beforehand of the story arc, and especially the eight or ten main characters, is highly valuable.
The story of Celie Harris is among the richest and most empathetic historical portraits in the last 30 years. If her heartbreak, her endurance, and her eventual triumph has resonance for you, don't hesitate to see "The Color Purple" during its limited run.