Entertainment » Theatre

The Color Purple

by Rob Urbinati
Monday Oct 15, 2018
A scene from "The Color Purple" at the Paper Mill Playhouse through October 21.
A scene from "The Color Purple" at the Paper Mill Playhouse through October 21.  

"The Color Purple," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker set in rural Georgia in the first half of the last century, was published in 1982, and Steven Speilberg's glossy film version was released two years later. But Walker's powerful story couldn't be more of the moment in 2018, in the heat of the #MeToo era.

The musical, like its source material, is a harrowing, and ultimately, inspirational tale of brutality against women and triumph over adversity. The Paper Mill Playhouse production directed by John Doyle does full justice to Walker's novel, whose characters are almost part of the country's collective consciousness.

Celie, a young teen, is raped by Alfonso, the man she believes to be her father. She gives birth to a second child which, like her first, is taken from her. When a local farmer, Mister, attempts to marry Celie's sister Nettie, Alfonso refuses, and offers Celie, the "ugly one," instead. Celie moves in with Mister, where she's physically and emotionally abused, and forced to work like a slave. Fleeing Alfonso, Nettie shows up, and Mister attempts to seduce her. She manages to escape and promises to write, but Celie, never receiving the letters, comes to believe that her sister is dead. (In an elegant moment of Doyle's minimalist staging and design, Nettie appears as the mailbox, holding her unopened letters).

The blunt and fiery Sofia who marries, abandons, then remarries Mister's son Harpo, gives Celie with a model of strength and defiance. Mister's part-time lover, Shug Avery, a brash, heavy-drinking saloon singer shows up and befriends Celie, endowing her with a sense of self-worth, convincing her that she's more than Mister's servant. Their friendship grows passionate, providing Celie — and Act One of the production — with some desperately needed warmth and tenderness. Gradually, she manages to overcome her feelings of inadequacy, escape her cruel husband, and take control of her destiny.

While "The Color Purple" is unflinching in its depiction of rape, incest, brutality, oppression and racism, the potent dramatic mix also includes scenes of friendship, community and unbridled joy. By turns harrowing and exultant, "The Color Purple" is full of vibrant life.

For Paper Mill, John Doyle once again directs his pared-down adaptation of the satisfying if unwieldy original 2005 Broadway production which included considerably more events and locations from Walker's sprawling novel. Doyle's "revisal" opened in London before coming to Broadway in 2015, where it won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and then went onto a national tour.

His revisions to Marsha Norman's book do not entirely solve the narrative challenges of adapting an epic, decade-spanning novel, (the numerous letters and an awkward phone call are too blatantly expositional), but this "bare-bones" version, with its tighter focus, is a vast improvement over the first Broadway outing. The result is a pure, distilled musical theatre experience, with rich, complex characters, and an almost overwhelming emotional impact.

The simplified approach is reflected in the design, also by Doyle. The unit set consists of three vertical panels extending from floor to ceiling at the back of the stage, each covered with broken slats of wood. Hung on the panels are wooden chairs, the lowest of which are taken down by the cast and rearranged in various formations on platforms closer to the audience to suggest multiple locations. The props are few — woven baskets, sheets of fabric, letters, and an all-important Bible. It's not a splashy visual production, but the artful, fluid design keeps the focus squarely on the characters' emotional journeys. Jane Cox's lighting bathes the production in a golden glow, and most of Ann Hould-Ward's detailed costumes have a sepia, period quality — except when events demand welcome bursts of bright color.

The outstanding, Grammy-winning score is the work of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, supported by Joseph Joubert's rhythmic orchestrations utilizing saxophones and flutes to great effect. The music and lyrics are diverse and abundantly melodic, with blues, jazz, ragtime, African music and gospel-flavored songs woven in and around the dialogue, occasionally exploding into soaring, show-stopping numbers such as "Hell, No!," "Push da Button," "What About Love,?" "Celie's Curse," and the exultant "I'm Here," delivered with passion and power by a dazzling cast. Adrianna Hicks is a force of nature as Celie, and Carla R. Stewart (Shug Avery), Erica Durham (understudying Nettie), and Carrie Compare (Sofia) are all outstanding actors and singers. Although the women take center stage, Gavin Gregory's Mister and Jay Donnell's Harpo provide solid support as the men who bring joy and torment into their lives.

John Doyle's adaptation and direction of "The Color Purple" are masterful, and The Paper Mill Playhouse production is superb. Hell, yes!

"The Color Purple" continues through October 21, 2018 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. For more information, visit the Paper Mill Playhouse website.

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