Play: The Color Purple
Group: Touring Company
Venue: The Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand
Dates: Through February 7
Tickets: From $27 to $68; contact 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Story: Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and the subsequent film directed by Steven Spielberg, this two-act musical recounts the life of Celie, a poor, uneducated black woman living in the hellish environment of rural Georgia from 1909 to 1949. Sexually abused by her stepfather, and later separated from her beloved sister Nettie who leaves home for better opportunities, Celie endures a life of torment and abuse, first at the hands of Pa, who fathers her two children before age 14 and immediately takes them away from her, and then as the scorned wife of Mister, a prosperous farmer who subjects her to cruel physical and emotional abuse.
While derided as “ugly” and a poor substitute for Nettie, whose physical beauty made her Mister’s first choice for his conjugal needs, Celie nonetheless develops an affinity for Harpo, Mister’s son who falls in love with and marries a headstrong woman named Sofia. She marvels at Sofia’s powerful personality, and eventually builds her own self-confidence with the encouragement of Sofia and Shug, a worldly entertainer who is the woman Mister has always loved, learning much about herself and her own abilities to survive in a frequently hostile world where cruelty often is passed along to the next generation.
Highlights: This touring company is back at The Fox 16 months after its original visit, following a successful run on Broadway that began in December 2005 and closed early in 2008. It includes the original creative team of set designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Paul Tazewell, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and sound designer Jon Weston as well as director Gary Griffin. All contribute to the handsome production, which Griffin keeps moving smoothly for more than two and a half hours, thanks to several rousing numbers choreographed by Donald Byrd that are infectious and invigorating. The resplendent lighting work by MacDevitt is consistently dramatic in background effects that complement Beatty’s symbolic and fairly wide open design
The book by Marsha Norman captures the tone and glorious triumph of hope in Walker’s prose, while the music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray stand out on several numbers. Of particular delight are the spirited Mysterious Ways belted out in glorious gospel style near the beginning of Act I, the lively Brown Betty tune delivered by Harpo and the townsmen at Harpo’s ‘juke joint,” and the boisterous Hell, No! sung by Sofia and the ladies.
Felicia Fields, as the high-spirited and earthy Sofia, reprises her Broadway and earlier touring role in a crowd-pleasing performance, while Kenita R. Miller anchors the presentation with her powerful, resilient and affecting portrayal of the redoubtable Celie. Miller blends Celie’s unwavering decency with a capacity to grow even in horrid situations, with her strong voice underlining the character’s fight for dignity and right to self-expression.
Other Info: There’s solid support by Rufus Bonds Jr., reprising his role as the villainous Mister, Angela Robinson again portraying the indomitable Shug, LaToya London once again the sweet and loving Nettie, Stu James as the upbeat Harpo and Tiffany Daniels as Squeak, Harpo’s girlfriend with the high voice and even higher aspirations for success as a singer.
While the music is by turns rousing and inspirational, sound problems on opening night were fearsome, with more than one-third of the dialogue difficult to discern even from seats close to the stage. Music director Sheila Walker’s band, however, was top-notch throughout, including keyboardists Victor Simonson and Mark Berman, drummer Steve Corley, guitarist Jake Langley and percussionist Andy Blanco.
Successfully combining blues, jazz, gospel and pop, The Color Purple is infused with hope and resiliency and a touching, if at times unrealistic, valentine to the indomitable human spirit.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.