Theatre Review: “The Color Purple” at Clowes Hall

Kenita R. Miller as Celie in "The Color Purple" - photo by Paul Kolnik

(Photo above is of Kenita R. Miller.  It was taken by Paul Kolnik.)

On Tuesday night I drove to Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus to see the Indianapolis premiere of “The Color Purple: the Musical about Love.”  It is presented by Oprah Winfrey, Scott Sanders, and several other producers as part of the Broadway Across America series.  Here is some basic background information from the press release that I received from director of public relations Nancy Parrott:

Nominated for eleven Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, THE COLOR PURPLE opened on December 1, 2005 at the Broadway Theatre where it ran for over two record-breaking years.  It is based on the classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker and the moving film by Steven Spielberg.  It is the unforgettable and inspiring story of a woman named Celie, who finds the strength to triumph over adversity, and discover her unique voice in the world.  With a joyous GRAMMY®-nominated score featuring gospel, jazz, pop and the blues, THE COLOR PURPLE is about hope and the healing power of love. 

As on Broadway, the North American Tour of THE COLOR PURPLE is directed by Gary GriffinTHE COLOR PURPLE features a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Grammy Award®-winning composers/lyricists Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, and choreography by Donald Byrd.  The original creative team of Tony Award®-winner John Lee Beatty (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Tony Award®-winner Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Jon Weston (sound), Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and Kevin Stites (Music Supervisor) was reunited for the tour.

I tweeted some first impressions the night of the show and then blogged some preliminary thoughts a couple days ago, on New Year’s Eve.  Today I would like to write in more detail about my experience of this moving musical.  It was a theatrical treat in and of itself, but I most loved the way it amplified my experience of Alice Walker’s inspiring novel, which I read two or three decades ago when I was in my early 20s.  The Color Purple resonated with me then as an empowering and hopeful coming-of-age story.  Now I am in my late 40s and I value letters, prayers, and other forms of communication with my loved ones even more.  Now, the novel – and this musical – resonates with me as a joyful and still empowering middle-aged survivor story. 

Loving the Novel

Mind you, a lot of the novel has been left out of the musical.  I don’t know if I would love the musical quite as much if I had not read the novel first.  The novel has many plot threads and issues and characters that help make Alice Walker’s point about the paradoxical complexity and universality of human experience.  The musical does not have a lot of these layers.

In the musical, for example, most of the part of the story that takes place in Africa has been whittled down to a discovery of the richness of African-American roots, with a quick realization that the main character’s sister “may not be someone’s mother, but I am somebody,” followed by the destruction of the village by white soldiers.  All of that is important, of course, but missing from the musical is the horrifying discovery of contemporary mutilated women within that ancestral richness, and the portrayal of the saint-like sister as susceptible to loving an off-limits person, just like the rest of us.

Loving the Musical

On the other hand, the musical did not “get it wrong,” as so often does happen with adaptations. You have to pay attention because whole chapters from the novel have been condensed into just a line or two, but the musical does honor the spirit and basic plot of the novel as well as its main setting of rural Georgia in 1909-1949.  The main character, Celie, is complex, and in the musical as in the novel we see her grow and change from an abused teenager to an abused wife to a middle-aged career woman who feels “the youngest us has ever been” and who is basically happy with herself, her relationships, her life, and her God. 

Moreover, there is just something about music (and, to a lesser extent, dance) that is perfectly suited to expressing the powerful emotions in this story.  Reading the novel was a completely satisfying experience in itself, but seeing and hearing the musical adds new layers to that experience.

In the musical, for example, Celie’s husband, “Mister” (played with terrifying brutality at first by Rufus Bonds, Jr.), in a song called “Celie’s Curse,” sings through his anguish over his ruined life into the realization that in spite of what he has suffered and who he can justifiably blame, he does have some control over his life and he does have the ability to change.  Celie can hold him accountable, but only he can change himself or his life.  It is a gut-wrenching portrayal of hitting bottom.

Here is Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr., on the left) being shamed by his father, Ol’ Mister (Adam Wade) in a photo taken by Paul Kolnick:

Rufus Bonds, Jr. (L) and Adam Wade (R) in "The Color Purple" - photo by Paul Kolnik

For another example, Celie’s stepson, Harpo (portrayed with an appealing cluelessness by Stu James) loves a physically large woman with an even larger personality named Sofia (portrayed with admirable “oomph” by Felicia P. Fields.)  In the novel, average-sized Harpo over-eats in an unsuccessful attempt to become substantial enough to boss Sofia around and earn his father’s (Mister’s) approval.  Harpo and Sofia’s sexual desire for each other is part of the novel, too, part of a larger theme that acknowledges that sexual attraction is a mystery and a gift, and we had all better just find the courage to love who we love, no matter what society or our families think about it.

However, in the musical, Harpo and Sofia get to sing a feisty-fun song about the irresistability of their attraction for each other and the importance of saving time and energy for love-making even when you’re exhausted from working.  It is called “Any Little Thing.”  I was turned on by the jazzy rhythms of the song itself.  Also, I confess that I love just about any portrayal of a plus-sized woman as sexual and sexually desirable, but I especially loved the humor and physicality of this one.  Where there’s a will, there a way.

Here are Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) and Harpo (Stu James) flirting with each other in another photo by Paul Kolnik:

Felicia P. Fields (L) and Stu James (R) in "The Color Purple" - photo by Paul Kolnik

I also cherished the sensitivity in the song, “Too Beautiful for Words.”  Glamorous and universally-desired/envied Shug Avery (Angela Robinson) sings this to Celie in an attempt to explain to her that she is, in fact, worth loving.

Best of all is Kenita R. Miller’s full and gorgeous singing of Celie’s thoughts and emotions.  I am tearing up again, remembering them, especially in a song near the end that is called “I’m Here.”

This is a story about hypocrisy and cruelty and slavery and fear and despair and all kinds of human frailties, but this is also a story about joy and love and pleasure and hope and courage and transformation and faith and human resilience.   I leapt to my feet, weeping, to applaud at the end, and after I had dried my tears and gone out to my car to drive home, I found I had to cry some more.  Talk about catharsis – oh, my goodness.

A Word About the Dancing                          

I like that this musical includes some spoken dialogue along with the singing and that people don’t dance just to be dancing.  When dancing is incorporated into the storytelling, it makes sense.  I was fascinated by the ways the dancing changed throughout the show to help illuminate the story without distracting from it:

Early on when people are at church or working in the field and Celie is doing her best to conform to God’s expectations of her as she understands them, the dancing is very crisp and many of the movements are executed in precise unison.

"The Color Purple" - photo by Paul Kolnik

Later, at the juke joint, when several combustible women – including Shug Avery, Sofia, and Harpo’s new girlfriend, Squeak (Tiffany Daniels) are all in the same room and Celie feels both daring and shy about being there with them, the dancing becomes much more slippery-slidey and each individual or couple seems to be doing his/her/its own steamy thing.

Rufus Bonds, Jr. dancing with Angela Robinson in "The Color Purple" - photo by Paul Kolnik

(That is Shug Avery (Angela Robinson) dancing with Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) in the middle of the photo, above.)

And still later, when Celie goes to Africa through her sister Nettie’s (LaTrisa A. Harper at this performance) letters and shares her sister’s feelings of exuberant discovery, the dancing is much more acrobatic.

"The Color Purple" national tour - photo by Paul Kolnik

The ensemble of singer-dancers includes Kevin Boseman, Shelby Braxton-Brooks, David Aron Damane, Lesly Terrell Donald, Lynette DuPree, Doug Eskew, Kimberly Ann Harris, Tim Hunter, Dana Marie Ingraham, Reva Rice, Horace V. Rogers, Drew J. Shuler, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden, Dawn Marie Watson, Virginia Ann Woodruff, Hollie E. Wright, and Yolanda Wyns.  “Swings” include assistant dance captain Darius Crenshaw, Andre’ Garner, dance captain LaTrisa A. Harper, and Phyre Hawkins.

As mentioned in the press release excerpt, above, the choreography was by Donald Byrd.  All photos in this post were taken by Paul Kolnik.

A Word About the Design Elements

I swooned again and again over Brian MacDevitt’s exquisite lighting design and John Lee Beatty’s subtly lovely set.  We are in a very poor area of rural Georgia – the rickety buildings are made of wooden slats with big spaces in between them – and yet there is an abundance of natural beauty for anyone to appreciate.  The ever-changing clouds in the sky are gorgeous.  Sunlight and moonlight come through trees that are literally as lacy as appliqués.  Densely growing blades of tall grass grow in richly earth-toned fields.  Tiny lights flicker invitingly from Harpo’s juke joint in the woods.  Yet it isn’t all idyllic. The mailbox that Celie is forbidden to touch gets its own special light, too.

And Africa is BLUE!  It is dazzlingly different from Celie’s home, filled with unfamiliar patterns and murky, dream-like light, and yet Celie recognizes the place through Nettie’s words at a microbial, genetic level of consciousness.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes beautifully support the storytelling, too.  Shug Avery’s golden dress is stunning, the church ladies’ outfits are impeccable (see photo of them in previous post), and Celie’s Folk Pants are every bit as bit as fun and accessorizable (is that a word?) as I imagined from reading the novel:

"The Color Purple" - photo by Paul Kolnik

The orchestra, conducted by music director Sheilah Walker, augments the storytelling in a special way as well.  I don’t have the words to describe it, but the pleasure of the orchestra playing the score came from more than the main accompaniment to the songs.  “Color” came into the show at various subtle points from little aural appearances of brass, or strings, or various percussion instruments. 

My Playbill says that Victor Simonson and Mark Berman were the assistant conductors and played keyboards #1 and #2, respectively.  Steven Corley played drums, Jake Langley played guitar, and Andy Blanco played percussion.   However, it sounded to me as if there were many more musicians in the orchestra pit than just these five plus the conductor, so I wonder if the “Orchestra Personnel” from Indianapolis Musicians Local 3, AFM, listed in a box at the side of the “Who’s Who In The Cast” pages also were also playing.  I’ll go ahead and list them, too, just in case:  Jim Farrelly (alto sax, flute, piccolo, clarinet), Tom Meyer (tenor sax, clarinet), Elliott Jackson (baritone sax, clarinet, bass clarinet), Joey Tartell (trumpet), Jeff Conrad (trumpet), Loy Hetrick (trombone), Margaret Dugdale (violin), Kara Day-Spurlock (violin), Colette Abel (viola), Dennis McCafferty (cell0), Steve Dokken (acoustic bass, electric bass, mouth harp).  Greg Imboden is the orchestra contractor.

The orchestra and the voices were well balanced, as is the sound design overall.  Sound designer Jon Weston made it possible for us to take in the big, Broadway voices down to our very cores without having our skin peel back from our skulls. 

Box Office

I wish I had time to go see this show again tomorrow (Sunday), its last day here in Indianapolis.  There are two performances left.  Here is the scoop from the press release:

THE COLOR PURPLE will play Clowes Memorial Hall December 29- January 3, 2010: Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30PM, Friday at 8:00PM, Saturday at 2:00PM and 8:00PM, and Sunday at 1:00PM and 6:30PM.

Tickets range in price from $20- $70 depending on the seat location and performance date and may be purchased from an authorized ticket agent online at BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com, in person at the Clowes Memorial Hall Box Office, downtown at the Murat Theatre or the Broadway Across America Box Office or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. Groups of 15 or more are available by calling 317-632-5182 ext 103.

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The next show in Broadway Across America’s Indianapolis season is “The 101 Dalmatians Musical.”  It will run from March 9-14, 2010 at Clowes Hall.  See above to make a reservation.  Do you suppose they will actually include 101 live Dalmatian puppies in the show?

I had fun imagining that, but after watching the series of very short promotional videos on Broadway Across America’s “101 Dalmatians Musical” website, I think the actual show will be fun, too.  There will be live dogs, yes, but also…actors performing the whole show on stilts.  I am looking forward to it!

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.com for brief day-of-show observations and reactions.

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