A sleek, vastly improved and altogether wonderful revival of “The Color Purple” opened Thursday at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The original 2005 staging was a fine, solid show, but under John Doyle’s new, inspired direction the musical emerges as one of the most adult shows ever written.
The word adult in this context means sex. The musical is simply filled with sex of all kinds. There’s a lot of sex as violence. Some sex translates into love. But for the most part, there’s sex just for the fun of it, especially in songs like “Push Da Button” and “Any Little Thing.”
Years ago, Doyle had begun to look like a one-trick director when he followed his madhouse “Sweeney Todd” with an overwrought “Company” that once again had the actors subbing as the orchestra. Then there was his ill-conceived “Peter Grimes” at the Met and “Mahagonny” at L.A. Opera that turned opera into readers’ theater.
Last season, however, Doyle pulled off a major coup last spring with his minimalist take on “The Visit,” paring down the Terrence McNally/John Kander/Fred Ebb show from its original Goodman Theater production in 2001. The only moving parts were the actors and a coffin, which unfortunately came to symbolize the musical’s undeserved commercial fate in Gotham.
Doyle employs that same spare aesthetic for “The Color Purple,” but this time he delivers what looks to be a big commercial hit. When the musical version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel opened a decade ago, it got solid reviews and was nominated for 11 Tonys, including Best Musical. It ran nearly 1,000 performances and audiences connected with its heart-felt story of four African-American women in Georgia who struggled not only for identity but survival in the first half of the 20th century.
Four women is a lot for a musical, and in that original production the focus on Celie (Tony winner LaChanze) sometimes got lost.
The new “Color Purple” never loses sight of its Celie, and Doyle keeps the show revolving around the stunning performance of Cynthia Erivo in the role. She isn’t better than LaChanze, Erivo is just different — very grounded, less impish and adorable. Her more naturalistic approach roots the show, and that’s needed because Doyle’s minimalism here is very fanciful.
In addition to directing, Doyle designed the set, and it doesn’t amount to much more than a few wooden chairs, which take shape as houses, churches, cars, buggies, and juke joints with breathtaking speed and imagination. Marsha Norman’s excellent book is essentially the same, but some of the songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray have been cut. “The Color Purple” runs about half an hour shorter than it did in 2005.
As in the original production, Act 2 begins with a letter from Celie’s lost sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango), visualizing her new life as a missionary in Africa. In that more literal 2005 staging, the scene came off too broadly, as if the producers were trying to capture that audience looking for another “Lion King.” Here, since the African milieu is merely suggested by big baskets and colorfully patterned sheets, the effect is much more integrated.
And then there are the performances. “The Color Purple” is “The Women” of musicals. Erivo dominates, as she must. But it’s a real contest between her and Danielle Brooks‘ big-voiced, full-bodied Sofie, the strong woman who becomes Celie’s role model even though she’s technically her step-daughter-in-law. (Yes, the sex and the relationships are complicated.)
Jennifer Hudson, in her Broadway debut, brings star presence to the role of Celie’s fickle lover, Shug Avery, whom no man or woman will ever fully possess. Here is another big, rich voice, and it is entirely apt that Hudson should be showy with her overuse of melisma. Shug’s the professional singer, after all, and Hudson’s approach makes a suitable contrast to Erivo’s simpler vocals. Hudson’s lack of stage experience, however, becomes noticeable in the second act when her character lurches from girlfriend to husband to a boyfriend who is literally a boy. Hudson fails to give much variation to these later scenes.
The men in “The Color Purple” are strictly supporting players, although Kyle Scatliffe finds much humor in Sofie’s put-upon husband, and Isaiah Johnson manages to imbue Celie’s abusive husband with some humanity even before he turns into the show’s closet hero before the final curtain. (The musical does go a bit far in trying to soften the novel’s Mister character.)
One caveat: Gregory Clarke’s sound design cranks up the volume at climactic moments in the women’s vocals. These singers have big voices. If Lincoln Center Theater can make sure that we actually hear some of Kelli O’Hara’s voice in “The King and I” in an acoustically inferior venue (the Vivian Beaumont), Erivo and company deserve a similarly toned down amplification.