Friday, July 20, 2018

For All Hue Persevere: Terrific Cast Renders Revamped Rendition of 'The Color Purple' Close to Perfect -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Color Purple
a musical
Broadway revival national tour
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 29

In addition to Seth Saith, I maintain a much less verbose blog called 6word Portraits

Each day, I sixinctly profile a person I admire on their birthday, and share the post on Facebook.

Wednesday, the day I would see The Color Purple in the evening, marked 100 years since the remarkable Nelson Mandela was born, and as such, he was my daily subject.

In sharing my 6er on Facebook, I included the following quote, spoken by Mandela in 1964, at the trial that would result in his imprisonment for 27 years, essentially for refusing to accept that black people should be subservient to whites in Apartheid South Africa:
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
As I watched The Color Purple, Mandela's remark about fighting black domination really stuck me, given the show's particularly heinous character of Mister, who--like everyone else onstage--is African-American.

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
Egregiously, racists may espouse that "black people are bad" but the truth is obviously that there are some people of African descent who happen to be bad--or who do terrible things--much as there are awful representatives of every race, religion, creed, etc.

It doesn't mean that anyone is bad because they're black. 

And part of the beauty of The Color Purple--in this case, the musical, as I haven't read Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel and am unsure if I ever saw Steven Spielberg's film adaptation--is that it chronicles a group of particular African-Americans, but like much great art, is also quite universal. 

Including in making the point that causing, facing, coping with and (hopefully) overcoming great pain and hardship is a reality inherent to those of all colors or classifications.

This isn't to suggest that black people and women--specifically--don't still face indignities (and worse), perhaps on a daily basis, that as I white man I presumably never will.

And it's no small part of The Color Purple's glory that it's entirely about--and onstage stars--African-Americans.

But as I watched the touring production of The Color Purple--currently at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre--a comparative musical that came to mind, somewhat surprisingly to me, was Les Misérables.

Though the latter concerns itself with insurgent French students--and others who feel ignored or mistreated by the ruling class of their own country--rising in rebellion in the early 19th century, both musicals have strong narratives derived from classic novels in which a central character perseveres over many years amid extremely challenging circumstances.

In Les Miz, this is Jean Valjean, a peasant imprisoned for 19 years--for stealing a loaf of bread--who
after his release becomes a dedicated father, respected businessman and mayor, yet remains hunted for his past.

But Les Misérables--which I believe the best musical ever created--excels in presenting several characters we truly come to care about. 

The Color Purple does this too, but at its heart is a young woman named Celie (played fantastically here by Adrianna Hicks). 

Although--without being able to cite specific adjustments--I liked this John Doyle-directed rendition of The Color Purple more than the original musical that toured in 2007, I still feel the show begins a bit abruptly.

It took me a few minutes to sort out the key characters and what was happening, and only in reading Wikipedia could I tell you with any exactitude that the predominant setting is rural Georgia, beginning in the 1930s. 

There Celie and Nettie (N'Jameh Camara) are teenage sisters, the former twice impregnated by her father and forced to give up her babies. 

The craven Mister (a terrible man adroitly embodied by Gavin Gregory) lusts for the obviously pretty Nettie, but is convinced to marry Celie, who both he and her dad openly deride as ugly (and other insults). 

Abetted by an impressive backdrop designed by Doyle--featuring as best I can describe, a wall of chairs--the choral number "Mysterious Ways" is quite powerful, as is "Our Prayer," sung by Nettie, Celie and Mister. 

As Celie begins her unhappy life with Mister, Nettie comes to visit. After he coldly sends her away, her disappearance hangs over the rest of Act I, and as I truly didn't recall how this would resolve itself, I'll keep things circumspect. 

But I think it fair to share that two other women become important friends to Celie, the boldly confident Sofia (Carrie Compere)--her take on "Hell No!" earns rousing applause on multiple levels--and a jazz singer named Shug Avery (Carla Stewart), who after being shown great kindness by Celie powerfully lets her know that she's "Too Beautiful for Words."

Other than to mention the additional characters of Harpo (J. Daughtry) and Squeak (Erica Dunham) mainly to cite the fine performances, any other narrative details will be left for your discovery. 

But as this is a musical, I will note "Push da Button" and "Miss Celie's Pants" as two more of the fine tunes credited to Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. 

Though the score has a few songs that don't quite dazzle, the high points are fantastic, with truly chills-inducing vocals by Hicks as Celie on "I'm Here," and remarkable work by Gregory's Mister on "Celie's Curse."

Unlike the British Doyle's noted directorial take on Sweeney Todd, in which the actors played musical instruments onstage, there is no obvious "gimmick" to this version of The Color Purple, whose return to Broadway in 2015 was relatively quick for a revival (the original production opening in NYC in 2005 and closed in 2008). 

I remember enjoying the show when I saw it at the Cadillac Palace in 2008, but not nearly this much.
My memory isn't sufficient to recollect has changed, but although the material itself doesn't quite delight me on par with Les Misérables or other musicals I consider among the very best, this is an superlative take that elevates the original score, presumably does better justice to Walker's revered novel and--based on other respected opinions--considerably improves upon the original Broadway production.

There is much that happens over the course of The Color Purple that--even in coming from rather famed source material--I don't feel right revealing in a review.

But Celie's story arc is much of what makes the show so powerful, and though you often rail at the depravity of its depiction the human condition, there is also considerable uplift.

Not only would Jean Valjean recognize a good bit of his self and spirit in the character of Celie and the aplomb with which she endures*, so too I have to believe, would Nelson Mandela.

*Just to clarify, as far as I'm aware, The Color Purple and Les Misérables were fictional novels, although steeped in history. My closing sentence might seem to suggest that Jean Valjean and Celie were real-life heroes as was Nelson Mandela, but I don't believe this to be the case.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Purple not Miserable. Read is better.