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The story, which spans four decades (from 1909 to 1949) in Georgia, Tennessee and Africa, could be reduced to a catalog of abuses. The narrator, Celie (fearlessly incarnated by Broadway veteran La Chanze), has been serially raped by her father; at 14 she has borne two children, immediately taken from her; the scars have left her unable to give birth again. Her horrible father, whose only lesson to Celie is that she's ugly, barters her to the sullen, brutal Mister (Kingsley Leggs), who is saddled with three wild kids of his own and requires a slave to cook, sew, act as lion tamer to his children and accede to his sexual demands. Mister scares off Celie's beloved sibling Nettie (Renee Elise Goldsberry), leaving the girl hapless and hopeless. "If I really dead," she moans, "it be better."
That's a powerful lot of death force. But there's life force too; the piece has many living examples of how to wrestle life, and your man, to a draw, and maybe take two out of three. The zaftig Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) is such a dynamo. Her personal Golden Rule is two words long: "Hell, no!" In her marriage to Mister's son Harpo (Brandon Victor Dixon), she's the boss; when Celie, who speaks only of what she knows, advises Harpo to beat her, Sofia snorts, "I love Harpo... But I'll kill him before I let him beat me." Another role model is the one person who has a claim on Mister's dour heart: the vampy vocalist Shug Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes). Shug's wanton lust has all the men drooling like Tex Avery wolves, while her wanderlust propels her out of town just long enough to make 'em miss her when she's gone.
The Walker book raised eyebrows and hackles by focusing on the oppression, not of blacks by the white hierarchy, but of black women by the black patriarchy. To simplify the message just a tad: men bad; women good. And since women get no respect, only ravaged, by their men, they turn to each other for solace, and sometimes sex. If the Spielberg film was stayed skittishly on the periphery of the lesbian-empowerment theme, the musical strolls right on in. Yes, it explains Celie's turning to women as a result both of her rapacious treatment by men and her longing for her beautiful lost sister; but most of the commendable ardor is girl-girl. Shug's big come-on song, "Too Beautiful for Words," is directed at Cellie, and the two women sing the first-act-closing love duet, "What About Love?"
BUT IS IT GOOD? HELL, YEAH!
Gay, straight who cares? The show had me from the start, as the girls Celie and Nettie perch in a tree branches and play a hand-clap game, and the cast congregates for Sunday morning song. I was impressed by the glamour and rapport of all the principals (though you'd need the young Lena Horne to give full body to Shug's vocal and erotic appeal) and by plenty of supporting players. A special salute goes to Krisha Marcano, a veteran of the Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey troupes who turns Harpo's friend Squeak into a limber, rag-doll delight. I should credit Griffin, whose directorial work I've enjoyed in City Center Encores! revivals, for unearthing nuance in each background character displays; look in each corner of the stage and you'll find some actor freshly fleshing out a bit part. There's not enough dancing, but what's there is choice, especially a sexy, six-man sashay when Shug comes on the scene. Adding verve to the proceedings is a Greek chorus of Church Ladies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Maia Nkenge Wilson), sassy biddies who bitch and gossip in faultless three-part harmony.
The score, which draws more from pop and gospel than from serioso post-tonal Broadway music, is not distinguished, but it serves the work honorably, taking life from the awful momentum of the story and propelling it along in turn. (The composers are helped by a standout orchestra, especially the very astute horn section.) This forward mo staggers a bit in Act Two, as many of the characters face redemption or epiphany. With the second act's opening number, set in Celie's dream of Africa, the choreography was suddenly pedestrian, the exultant emotions somehow forced. Maybe I just wanted bad things to keep happening to good people, but I stopped scribbling "VG" (Very Good!) on my notepad and started entering "OK"s.
A few of the later songs have a perfunctory air, as if inserted because second acts always have these numbers. Mister finally gets a soliloquy, but it will not erase the memory of John Raitt in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Carousel. Celie's solo, "I'm Here," which wants to blend affirmation with a hell-no defiance of the "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" stripe, was an imposing showcase for La Chanze, but seemed to be there mainly to remind you, after so many other characters had commandeered center stage, that Celie is the star.
But, look, folks, one terrific act in a musical is one more than is usually provided. And, really, the show falters in the home stretch only in comparison to its fabulous long-distance work most of the way. It doesn't get stinky, just less fabulous. And it never relinquished my admiration for putting elemental passions on the stage: life and death, love and pain, as defined by sex, work and church
The show begins with a prayer, so let's end with the Purple theology. That vigorous opening hymn, "Mysterious Ways," is also a notice to the audience: stay tuned while things get worse, because eventually they'll get better. For the first half of the musical, the worse predominates; Celia gets drowned in personal plagues, like a teenage lady Job. Act One is the work of the Old Testament God, a disinterested fellow with a stormy temper. Act Two, when most of the wrongs are righted, attends to the New Testament's doctrine of love and forgiveness.
Put it another way. In Act One, Celia says, "If God ever listened to a poor colored woman, the world would be a different place," adding, "God just another man." Shug's response: "God not a man at all." That's the message of Act Two: God is a decent, caring woman who ministers to the least of the world's children. You could say, she's Oprah.
Not all of Winfrey's showbiz enterprises have hit pay dirt. She was excellent in Beloved, the 1998 adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, but the film tanked. Now we'll see if Broadway is more welcoming to an Winfrey-certified product. I hope it is. This Color Purple made this craggy critic as dewy as Dave Letterman with Oprah by his side. In my heart, anyway, the show made a joyful noise.