The Color Purple
A love letter to America's black woman, the forward thinking Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" has been perfectly re-imagined as a musical by Marsha Norman. "Getting Out," an early drama from this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright about a woman on parole struggling against great odds to live a decent and contented life, prepared her well to tell another story of modest goals hard fought to gain.
But this play, "The Color Purple," exists on the spiritual terrain as well.
As the flamboyant, lusty, big hearted Shug tells the downhearted, gloomy Celie: when you see a field of purple flowers, like say lupine, God expects you to be uplifted and joyful. That's what this show does for you. It's a field of purple flowers.
With music and lyrics by an African American team of composers familiar with gospel and juke joint rhythms (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, & Stephen Bray), the two act, period drama, which moves from turn of the 20th century to the 1930s, is set in North Carolina. It was first produced for Broadway by among others Oprah Winfrey (who won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her wrenching performance in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film version as a ballsy woman beaten into near catatonic submission during a jail house stay).
The standard for Walker’s story of self emancipation flies high again with this production from SpeakEasy Stage Company which is splendid in every way. It’s perceptively directed by Paul Daigneault who gives the characters time to breathe while maintaining a breakneck pacing. Choreographer Christian Bufford brilliantly interposes trios and quartets of women who, like a Greek chorus, chatter about the dirt in people’s lives in-between scenes. He gives us as well a high stepping, party-hearty dance where it’s called for in the story.
"The Color Purple" is gone before you know it. Daigneault is abetted in maintaining the production’s momentum by scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord who provides a unit set of a giant tree on which the children in the story can climb up. It’s a set that epitomizes "family," yet gets out of the way so the story swirls, dances by, and flows without a hitch.
The story is Celie’s, a plain brown paper wrapper of a girl in an A+ nuanced performance from Lovely Hoffman. ’Put upon’ is too weak a phrase to describe this child’s situation. By age 14, she’s given birth to two children sired by her father who snatches them away to be adopted by others and then forces her to marry a local farmer who is wealthy but evil-tempered and who treats her like a slave. Celie knows him only as Mister.
She never gets to take a good breath between cleaning the house ’til it shines and caring for Albert’s unruly children by a previous marriage. Maurice Emmanuel Parent as the bully Albert who gets his comeuppance manages somehow to make us feel a little bit sorry for Albert but, hold it there, only a little bit. Cliff Odle as Mister’s Dad shows us why Albert is as he is.
Celie’s only joy is the companionship of her sister Nettie, who comes to live with Celie. That is until Albert’s unwanted sexual advances prompt Nettie to run away, but not before she has taught Celie the rudiments of reading. Nettie promises to write her. Yet Celie never gets a single letter. The statuesque lyrical soprano Aubin Wise lends an innate royal air to her beguiling interpretation of Nettie, which underscores Nettie’s missionary work in Africa as a reference Walker is making to the kings and queens of American black legacy.
One day Albert brings home his former flame (in truth the love of his life), Shug Avery, a blowsy jazz singer with the morals of a cat, but the heart of a lion as it turns out. The ailing Shug is nursed back to good health by Celie and they fall in love. The lesbian romance stirs heady feelings in Celie she has never before experienced. As the lively, shameless Shug, Crystin Gilmore radiates the warmth that draws everybody to Shug, even her detractors.
To add to Albert’s bewilderment, his son Harpo falls in love with a shameless, fun loving woman, Sofia, who bosses Harpo around. Complications build upon complications, and as Celie evolves into her own unflinching person, the many loose ends of the story get tied up satisfactorily one by one. As Harpo, Jared Dixon gives an inviting portrait of a man who breaks free from the he-man mold to love the one he loves. When he gets together with the sensual, take no prisoners Sophia, the woman of his dreams, the sexual sparks light up the stage. She is marvelously portrayed by Valerie Houston for all her spunk and sexiness and every inch of her pain.
Lovely Hoffman is utterly persuasive as Celie who touches our hearts. She is a wonderful singer as well, sometimes the sort of declarative vocalist in the Jennifer Holiday mode, if with more of a gospel beat, and then sometimes sweetly pensive.
We exit "The Color Purple" with her singing from her heart about her life’s journey. It’s wrung our emotions out too and lifted our spirits high.
Alice Walker’s "The Color Purple", a musical by Marsha Norman, produced by SpeakEasy Stage Co., continues thru Feb. 8 in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. in Boston’s South End. For more info please phone 617-933-8600 or visit HYPERLINK "http://www.Speak"EsayStage.com" www.Speak"EsayStage.com