The Color Purple
The musical has opened in Los Angeles to understandable acclaim. On opening night the able cast was the best evidence that a touring company does not imply an inferior production. Based on Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel, which became the film that launched Oprah’s career, the musical compresses some of the original storyline to meet running time constraints. Nonetheless, the broad themes and intimate details remain.
The story follows four decades in the diverging paths of sisters growing up in Georgia. Jeannette Bayardelle plays Celie, the downtrodden child bride who labors under the crushing yoke of Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.). LaToya London does an admirable job as Nettie, the sister who discovers her roots working for a missionary family in Africa. The sisters remained separated by years and miles. The distance collapses when Celie is finally able to read Nettie’s letters, which have been purloined by Mister.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong. Felicia P. Fields is the robust Sofia, a character who maintains the most consistent personality. She teaches independence by her actions, inevitably suffers because of her spirited position and is renewed when she sees the results of her teachings.
Shug Avery, loved by men and women, is played by the sultry Michelle Williams, who first hit the big time as a member of Destiny’s Child. Her vocal chops are remarkable, and she has moved to the theatrical stage with aplomb. “Push da Button” is Shug’s advice to men and women on the nuances of ensuring female satisfaction.
This is one of the more dense musicals in terms of multiple plotlines, but to the writers’ credit, the interweaving plot is compelling and coherent. The motivations behind the myriad relationships are believable, and there is a satisfying lack of plot devices to move the action forward.
The songs are uniformly strong, and several of the duets slow the forward pace only because the audience applause lasts so long. “What About Love” closes the first act, and is a stunner. The score runs a satisfying gamut of blues, gospel and early R ‘n B. The orchestra, led by Sheilah Walker is crisp.
The set is evocative, expansive and unobtrusive. The settings swing from the edges of Georgia swamps and fields, to a backwoods juke joint to the African veldt.
Opening night saw many of the creative team brought to the stage for a final curtain call. Although Oprah was “in Africa, caring for children,” the peerless Quincy Jones was there (wearing the same fedora he wore on the film set of The Color Purple), as were the songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.
At the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008. For more information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org/theatres/ahmanson/