The Color Purple: Flawed but Inspiring
Musical Adaptation of Award-Winning Novel Now at Kennedy Center
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
Adapting a controversial, popular, epistolary novel to the stage is a delicate task, one with as many pitfalls as it has possibilities. The task is made even more difficult when it requires the translation of an intensely personal, introspective journey to the more gregarious needs of the musical play, with its attendant melody, dance, and spirited rhyme schemes.
The task was just as delicate for Steven Spielberg when he adapted Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple for the screen, which provides a much wider palette for a story that sprawls from the Mississippi Delta to West Africa and across nearly a half-century of time. Spielberg’s effort was rewarded with eleven Oscar® nominations and it catapulted Whoopi Goldberg to stardom.
The musical stage adaptation of The Color Purple, although it received eleven Tony Award® nominations (winning one category), is a noble attempt that ultimately fails to satisfy.
Now playing to capacity audiences at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the production’s strongest claims to success are in its design elements: sets (by John Lee Beatty), lighting (by Brian McDevitt), and especially costumes. Costume designer Paul Tazewell’s creations are almost the only way audiences can follow the chronology of the piece: as fashions change, we know that time goes by in a story that begins before the First World War and ends after World War II. Tazewell’s costumes also signify poverty and wealth, glamour and mundanity – facets that define the characters almost as well as their words and actions do.
As for the characters themselves, several performances stand out, not least of which is American Idol winner Fantasia in the leading role of Celie. Not only must Celie age from 14 to 54 over the course of two hours, she must do so almost without a break: there is hardly a scene in The Color Purple in which Celie does not appear. As weak as the material is (more on that later), Fantasia carries it with aplomb and maturity beyond her years.
Also notable is Felicia P. Fields as Sofia (reprising her Tony-nominated role), whose self-assured character is brought low by the social establishment of the Jim Crow South only to be resurrected when her sister-in-struggle, Celie, asserts herself in Act II. Similarly, Angela Robinson as Shug Avery (the woman every man wants to be with and every woman wants to be, but whom Celie gets to be with) is sexy, sensual, strong, determined, and sharp-witted: a role model for anyone.
Book writer Marsha Norman has added a sort of Greek chorus in the Church Ladies (Doris, Darlene, and Jarene; respectively Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff, and Lynette DuPree) whose gossipy nature, vulgar comments, cutting remarks, and ever-changing costumes nudge the play along lightheartedly when it otherwise might become bogged down in melancholy and hopelessness.
Another performance worth singling out is that of Stu James as Harpo, Celie’s stepson (and Sofia’s husband) who may be the only man in her orbit who displays a sense of humanity and decency.
The major problem with The Color Purple as a piece of musical theatre is its lack of musicality. The score – which seems to have been written by a committee – is bland, undistinguished, and unmemorable. (In a good musical, one finds oneself humming the tunes on the way out of the theatre. I found myself humming a tune from a different musical, one that bore some resemblance to a song in The Color Purple, but that was far superior.)
Unsurprisingly, given that the songwriting duties were divided up among three composer/lyricists – Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray – whose backgrounds are more in pop music than in musical theatre, the score is scattered all over the place. It is not grounded in time (or location) and it fails to deliver any integrated sensibility (such as, for instance, providing motifs that follow characters through the story and link their development).
There are problems, too, with Norman’s book, which turns Walker’s wrenching portrayal of misogyny and cruelty into an anodyne pabulum that condescends to the audience, as if a producer said to the playwright, “Tone down the beatings and the rapes; I don’t want tired businessmen to walk out during intermission.”
Moreover, Norman forsakes clarity in an effort to compress the story (and fit it into a reasonable running time, which even now is nearly three hours). For instance, in the climactic scene, which takes place during a picnic, Alice Walker tells us that the gathering is meant to celebrate the Fourth of July. The play does not, raising the question of why Celie is so non-chalant about attending a party put together by her cruel ex-husband. One line could have avoided that question.
Walker’s criticism of African patriarchy is completely missing from this adaptation. In its stead is a second act dream ballet that, were it not meant to be taken seriously, could easily be misinterpreted as bad-taste minstrelsy. Add to this the absence of any mention of the Great Depression, Prohibition, or World War II in a story that spans all those major periods, and you have to wonder what the writers were thinking.
The Color Purple is a flawed musical play. Nonetheless, it will continue to draw audiences, as it did for 910 performances on Broadway. The underlying story of one woman’s triumph over adversity and evil remains inspiring. If that is enough to satisfy the “tired businessman,” then nothing more need be said.
The Color Purple runs through August 9, 2009, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Performances run Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m. with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:30 p.m. Tickets cost $25-$95 and may be purchased at the Kennedy Center Box Office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600. Patrons living outside the Washington metropolitan area may dial toll-free at (800) 444-1324 or visit the Kennedy Center web site at www.kennedy-center.org. (NOTE: During the matinee performances on July 12, 19, and 26, and on August 1 and 2, and during the evening performance on July 31, the role of Celie will be played by Phyre Hawkins or Brandi Chavonne Massey.
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik. Production photos courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
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