Reviewed by David Spencer
Much of what I have to say here will sound like damning with faint, or grudging, praise, and that's actually not my intent. No, this is actually a positive review, and a sincere one. But I have to write it truthfully too, and the truth is this:
Performances aside, there's very little in The Color Purple that could not have been better. Marsha Norman is only a serviceable librettist, and the pop song trio who wrote the score -- Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray -- are only competent in this, their first foray into theatre writing, and most of the other elements too, choreography (Donna Byrd), staging (Gary Griffin, and I distinguish staging from his direction, more on that in a bit) could also have been realized better, each taken on its own terms. Presupposing, of course, that those other, better artisans could have developed a similarly functional collaborative gestalt, and there's no way to know.
Paradoxically, the genuine miracle of this musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, and the subsequent film made of it, is that for all of the mid-level execution, it remains focused, clean, coherent, even pushes the envelope a little. This is one of those deals where having the right people in the same room, working on the right material for their passions and talent, was enough to spark something that, as a whole, is better than their individual contributions. Because it could have been so much worse.
And that clean competence is going to keep it afloat for a long time. Because on top of the fact that it delivers on what it promises, it dramatizes a signature work of Afro-American literature, which tells a story inextricably welded to Afro-American culture -- even if you wanted to, you couldn't recast the story in another ethnicity, or remove its ethnicity, lest it no longer make any sense. Thus, the black community will add their ticket buying force and considerable presence to the audience, merely for having something of quality that's theirs.
Where the show pushes the envelope is in managing to conquer two narrative obstacles that no other musical has conquered successfully.
The first: The heroine is passive for a long stretch of the first act. Musicals, because they are compact and elevated, seem to demand active characters at their center. Characters who are passive, or ciphers, tend not to be sympathetic because they're targets or underwritten; and they create focus problems -- because musicals also demand thrust, which requires a character driving the story. When drive isn't present, supporting characters take over and the ride loses definition.
Yet in Celie (LaChanze), we are presented with a poor, black girl in the deep south -- she has been abused and raped by her stepfather (JC Montgomery) and by the age of 14 has given birth to a boy and a girl, both taken away from her, and winding up she knows not where. Shortly after, in a business arrangement, she is "sold" to Mister (Kingley Leggs) to be his wife; though Mister would have much preferred her prettier sister Nettie (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Nettie is Celie's one meaningful connection with family and love, for life with Mister is similarly brutal and abusive. At length, Nettie is forced to escape town, reluctantly leaving Celie to fend for herself. Though by now Celie is beginning to, just beginning to, articulate her needs and desires and act on them.
Now in a certain sense, Celie is not wholly passive. Unlike, say, Charlotte Bronte's classic Jane Eyre (heroine of an ill-fated musical of some seasons back), she is not a bewildered spectator in her own life. Celie's dreams and desires are implicit, in her attachments to her confiscated babies and her sister, plus her admiration for the hefty, brazen Sofia (Felicia P. Fields) who won't take no mistreatment from no man; so Celia, even in silence, is locked onto the goals of re-connection and claiming her dignity. Thus, in a way, Celie's a ticking time bomb. We know her passivity will end as soon as she turns the corner where she can start to control her own fate. And it's a gradual process, that emerges in fits and starts. In effect, the creative team of The Color Purple have made the passivity feel active because Celie always looks and feels ahead, rarely pausing for introspection or self-pity. When her first act of resistance inspires Mister to say he'd never seen just sitting around before, she challengingly replies: "What it look like?" And it's the first track marker in an escalating series of catharses, for which the audience, with a little restraint, cheers.
And that leads to the second way in which The Color Purple does something new. General wisdom has it that it's hard to cover an epic span of time in a musical. Again, the compression and broad strokes endemic to the form resist sprawl. (i.e. 1776 is not the story of John Adams; it's about a selected, brief period in his life when he tried to get a very specific thing done.) But Celie's story is one that spans several decades. Here too, her growing self-sufficiency, her dreams of connection -- which now involve not just her kids and her sister, but her first real romantic and physical love, with club singer Shug (short for Sugar) Avery (Elisabeth Withers-Mendes) -- define a specific journey that can only reveal narrative focus if framed against the passage of time. It's a remarkable anomaly in musical theatre literature -- and in its way the exception that proves the rule. (I think the only other successful musical in the cannon to pull this off is Show Boat, and it pays to remember it has never been presented the same way twice. Each new revival seeks new ways to conquer the narrative, rejiggering the book so that the multiple storylines stay aloft without loss of tension or focus. The recent Hal Prince production probably nailed it as definitively as anyone could.)
The score is pleasant, appropriate, effective and efficient without ever being transcendent or iconic. For the most part, the songs have proper dramatic function, and for the most part, niceties of craft are adhered to. There is a small complement of false rhymes, but interestingly, they seem so much a part of the patois (as I recall, all or most emerge from genre type songs reflecting Southern black culture, such as gospel hymns and folk tunes) that even these craft violations seem like appropriate (if not altogether necessary) choices.
Under the direction of Gary Griffin, the performances are, in the best sense, absolutely fine without any being truly electrifying; and the staging, as I indicated earlier, is sufficient without ever being memorable. But where the jury's out on Mr. Griffin is his influence on the writing team. Without inside information, it's really impossible to know exactly what a director's responsible for, in terms of focusing the piece, keeping the writers on the path -- even though ostensibly the director is project leader, once you're into rehearsals. Jerome Robbins made thematic focus his signature; Trevor Nunn not so much. But if Griffin, to any significant degree, was the keeper of the overview, the guy who kept the writing team on point, especially given all the ways in which The Color Purple could have failed, then he has the potential to be a serious contender for the new millennium A-List. It's a knack that, if he has it, cannot be underestimated.
All in all, the checkmarks go into the WIN column for The Color Purple. They're not writ large, but winning is winning. And miracles needn't rumble and thunder, or even be perfect, to be miracles...