Thursday, May 3, 2018

"The Color Purple"

The Color Purple
Marsha Norman (Book); Brenda Russell, Allee Willis & Stephen Bray (Music & Lyrics); Based on the Novel by Alice Walker

Adrianna Hicks & The Cast of The Color Purple
Entering the SHN’s Orpheum Theatre to see the latest revival of Marsha Norman’s (book) The Color Purple, I immediately recalled July 5, 2006, when I first saw the musical at The Broadway in New York.  Of the several thousand times I have seen a show in my lifetime, that afternoon ranks as one of the highlights.  Filling the matinee audience were busloads of African-American women from places like Newport Beach, VA and Baltimore, MD; and most were dressed in their Sunday finest, hats and all.  As the afternoon progressed, this packed hall rocked with their “Amen, Sister;” “You tell him, Girl;” and constant, rhythmic claps amongst a sea of otherwise raised, swaying arms.  By the end, the stage was full of a cast singing (in tears themselves at this point) to an audience already on its feet,
“Like the color purple,
Where do it come from?
Now my eyes are open,
Look what god has done.”

I knew at that moment we had all been to a church that afternoon for a service we would never forget. 

So with some trepidation but with much anticipation, I awaited the opening in the Orpheum of this latest The Color Purple.  Before us was a three-stepped, bare, wooden stage along with three, background columns of all sorts of chairs and rockers hanging on a puzzle of wood slabs rising from floor to ceiling.  If I thought for a moment that this might be a stripped-down version of the original, all it took was the full company’s fabulously voiced, opening number, “Mysterious Ways” to tell me that tonight was going to be something special.  With cast members looking out into the audience as if they knew each of us and immediately including us a part of their congregation, their swirling rounds of entreaties to “make a joyful noise joyful, joyful, joyful” sent our feet tapping and hearts pounding. 

Yes, the music and lyrics of Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray still strike chords deep in one’s soul as well as tickle every innard; and the SHN touring version of The Color Purple in every way is a gift from Musical Heaven!

Carla R. Stewart & Adrianna Hicks
Based on Alice Walker’s novel by the same title, The Color Purple is a love story between two sisters, Celie and Nettie, who are separated for many years after their father agrees that the early teen Nettie – the prettier of the two – should marry a horse-whip-carrying brute known as Mister.  Nettie escapes this fate to some unknown place, leaving Mister to settle reluctantly on Celie, whom he calls to her face, “Ugly.”  Mister turns out to be a bully in every sense of the word, openly cheating on Celie -- especially when the sassy, swishing, and beautiful club singer, Shug Avery, comes to town.  But something happens when Celie is commanded by Mister to take care of Shug after one of her alcohol/drug episodes.  As she strokes Shug’s hair and rubs her aching body, Celie for the first time in her life realizes she loves someone in a way that is more than sisterly affection.

Adrianna Hicks begins as a fourteen-year-old, shy Celie whose voice is light and soft as she sings a lullaby, “Somebody Gonna Love You,” to a newborn boy whom she is forced by her father to give away.  The youth in her disappears quickly as she waits hand and foot on Mister, her young voice becoming nasally and her almost frozen face showing little affect. 

Adrianna Hicks & The Women
But as she matures through the years and continues to endure more and more abuse from Mister, her eyes are opened to new ways of taking charge of her own life by the strong women around her.  She begins to feel love from and for another person as she sings with an increasingly self-confident, uplifting voice in duet with Shug, “What About Love?”  She sets up a pants making shop and outfits the town in a rainbow of new styles --- all told in a rousing, merry-go-round number of pants and smiles galore, “Miss Celie’s Pants,” where the women boast in big voices, “Look who’s wearing the pants now!” 

As Celie ages and goes through a lifetime of difficult experiences -- always seeing herself as plain and unattractive -- she finally looks herself in the mirror and sings, “I’m Here” in a voice ringing to the rafters in triumph, “I’m thankful for loving who I really am, I’m beautiful ... Yes, I’m beautiful and I’m here.”  The real beauty of Adrianna Hicks’ performance and of the directorial choices of John Doyle is that Celie ages, changes, and matures with no help from make-up or wig designers; she becomes Celie’s destined self solely through stellar acting and singing.

Carrie Compere & The Women of The Color Purple
Two women are particularly important in Celie’s development.  Carrie Compere is the strong-willed, put-up-with-no-crap Sofia who marries the mild-mannered, pretty good guy Harpo, younger brother to Mister.  Sofia pushes Celie never again to let Mister beat her in a number that has become a signature anthem for The Color Purple (as well as a big, t-shirt seller), “Hell No.”  With a voice that drops jaws in its sheer power, Sophia works the entire town’s group of women into a frenzied resolution as they interject into their “Hell no’s,” their advice to Celie: “Don’t be no fool, don’t waste your time; any man who hurts you, ain’t worth a dime!”  The song takes on even more relevance and meaning in the midst of the current #MeToo movement, something that could be felt from the audience’s response within the Orpheum as Sofia and the women rallied Celie’s courage.

Sofia herself goes through some terrible times due to her bold, take-no-crap attitude that does not go over so well in rural 1930s Georgia.  But when she and her Harpo (J. Daughtry) – who has had the wanderings with a squeaky voiced waitress (a hilarious Erica Durham) – finally find themselves in a good spot as a married couple, they bring the house down in an athletically amazing, sex-teasing “Any Little Thing.”  The smaller Harpo literally raises the larger Sofia off her feet time and again in simulated lovemaking while the two both sing in voices that ring to the rafters.

Carla R. Stewart and Cast Members
The other woman who helps Celie to emerge from her cocoon is of course Shug Avery.  Shug knows how to “Push da Button” on men as she instructs the town’s women how to do the same and is quite willing to use her fire-engine-strong voice and her brassy moves that don’t shy away from stroking any region of their bodies.  But Carla R. Stewart’s Shug is much more than her juke-joint, temptress self.  With tones soothing and notes rolling like a refreshing stream, she sings to a disbelieving Celie that she’s “Too Beautiful for Words.”  Later they join together in an Act One climax duet (“What About Love” that soars with the love they feel for each other.  The two actresses combine their close-harmony voices to pull at every heart string in the audience – and to recall the strong statement this musical made back in 2006 about same-sex love at a time when states’ constitutional amendments all but negated such.

While the women of this Georgia town are the ones who prove to be the real stars of this musical that Oprah Winfrey helped co-produce on Broadway, the transformative arcs the men make under the women’s strong-willed tutelage is also an inspiring message of Marsha Norman’s book.  These men early on sing in rough-edged, deeply troubling voices “Big Dog” about how Celie must work hard all day serving her man and then get ready for a hard night in bed.  As Mister, Gavin Gregory is the lion-voiced ring leader in how to treat your woman in all the worst ways while also how to cheat on her, even under her own home’s roof.  But his Mister hits the wall and comes to his own confessional altar in a strongly sung and performed, “Celie’s Curse.”  Gavin Gregory’s echoing vocals are impressive as is his ability to transform his Mister into an Albert that we hardly recognize by the play’s end.

John Doyle’s choice as director to keep the townsfolk on-stage as witnesses to the story unfolding helps make the narrative immediate and as if we are all in fact reading aloud Alice Walker’s novel.  His choices of keeping the props simple – with the hung chairs coming on and off and serving as everything from shovels to jail cell walls and with straw baskets filling in as the only other major story-telling aid – helps us stay focused on the powerful words spoken and sung.  The costumes of Ann Hould-Ward are also overall plain in the ways one would expect from a rural, Southern town the first half of the twentieth century, with only Shug’s outfits being ones that seductive flair and big-city style are awarded.  Jane Cox’s lighting often shifts subtly in mid-song as moods swing, and the colors she projects around the tall, chair-filled columns of wood change their very composition and look.  Finally, Darryl Archibald leads a mixture of local and touring musicians in an orchestra that takes the musical’s score and allows it to tell its own story when words are not enough.

For so many reasons, The Color Purple is full of the messages and hope that we need today just as much, and perhaps more, than when it premiered in 2004 in Atlanta, Georgia.  The touring production currently at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre is one not to be missed, an evening full of uplifting music and strong women who can all teach us a thing or two about how to “open our eyes” and “look at what god has done” – no matter how we define the small-‘g’ god who gave us miracles like the color purple.

Rating: 5 E

The Color Purple continues through May 27, 2018 at at 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credit:  Matthew Murphy

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