The Color Purple, the musical playing at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre through July 1, 2018. Get tickets and more info here. This extraordinary story has been granted a new staging and given new life. Follow Miss Celie through her trials and tribulations live on stage.
The Color Purple is an incredible novel about the struggles of a young African-American girl in rural Southern Georgia. The beloved novel (written in epistolatory letters to God) was made into an award-winning film and was adapted for the stage back in 2005. A new staging (and rewritten script) was developed for the 2015 Broadway revival and that is the production that has reached The Paramount Theatre.
The story takes place in Georgia at the early part of the 20th Century, and centers on a young girl named Celie. She has given birth twice, as a result of being raped by her father, and the children have been taken away. She is constantly abused by physical work as well, and the only person showing her kindness is her sister, Nettie. Celie is married off to Mister, who wanted to marry Nettie, but took Celie to work on his farm and raise his children. Again she is abused, worked, and raped but this time by her husband. Nettie comes to stay with them but is run off after Mister tries to rape her. Harpo is Celie’s stepson (by Mister) and he is married to a take-no-nonsense type of girl named Sophia. It is Sophia’s rebellious attitude that gives Celie her first glimpse at what it means to stand up for yourself. When Mister’s mistress, a blues singer named Shug Avery comes to stay with them, it is Celie that nurses her back to health – and falls in love with the raunchy singer. When her love is finally returned for the first time in her life, Celie realizes her worth and her journey of self-discovery, and learning how to stand up for herself begins.
The show has an excellent cast. Three women (Bianca Horn, Angela Birchett, and Nyla Watson) make up the Church Ladies in lieu of a Greek Choir. They add humor, harmony and disposition to the story line by whispering and gossiping about the goings on of Celie, Mister, Nettie and Shug Avery. J. Daughtry plays Harpo, Celie’s stepson. His voice is good and he adds both comic relief and tension the the role. His character goes through a great change as he learns to respect his wife Sophia, being the first to break the cycle of abuse instead of trying to beat her into submission. Carrie Compere plays Sophia. Her voice is as strong as her presence on stage, and that says something. She is a force to be reckoned with, and when she sings her defiant song, “Hell No”, she receives her well-deserved praise and applause from the audience. N’Jameh Camara plays Nettie, the one person that has always been there for Celie. Her youthful enthusiasm comes through – at first, but seems to diminish as the show goes on. While her voice is good, the character’s optimistic drive tapers off instead of growing stronger at the prospect of ever returning to her sister.
Gavin Gregory plays Mister. The role is brutish and Mr. Gregory approaches it with care. His voice is strong and his presence on stage is good. He shows the harshness and violence that Mister grew up with (and passes onto his own family), without being a frightening force on stage. Carla R. Stewart is Shug Avery. Ms. Stewart brings sass and raunch to the role without being crass or vulgar. In some ways it works and in others, it seems a tad lacking for the full appeal of the brassy blues singer. Adrianna Hicks plays Celie. From the beginning of the show she presents the character as a young girl that is already beaten down by those around her. She remains monotonous, even after Shug arrives in her life, until practically the end of the show when she emerges from her battered cocoon to finally become the butterfly she’s been hiding inside herself. Her journey is filled with challenges, love and all the obstacles that could be imagined, but Ms. Hicks does a good job of showing that the journey can change a person, and that the simple act of showing someone else kindness, can be all the strength needed to become a better person.
The musical (script by Marsha Norman, music/lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray) does a good job of adapting Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel for the stage. The production explores more of the relationship that Celie and Shug have created (much more than the 1985 film adaptation). The music definitely tries to recreate the sounds and rhythm of the time, by mixing jazz and blues into the score. The problem is this incarnation of the musical seems to have speeded up the storyline. The director doesn’t allow the time needed for the characters to build their relationships thus depriving the audience of the full spectrum of emotions. The musical runs two and a half hours (including intermission) but I feel the audience would have been fine if it were a little longer, and the relationships (especially between Celie and Shug) had been given the time to explore and demonstrate the love these characters feel for one another. It is about the pacing and the audience is given glimpses like a kaleidoscope instead of the patience needed to let the story truly bloom.
The Color Purple is a beautiful story about love first and foremost. Whether it is in the original novel, the (Steven Spielberg) film adaptation, or the stage musical, it is the love that Celie finds within herself, as well as from those around her, that the audience can identify with and celebrate. To paraphrase Shug Avery’s most famous quote: “I think it pisses God off if we walk by the color purple…and don’t appreciate it.”
Originally opened on Broadway in December 2005, staring La Chanze as Celie. The musical was nominated for 11 Tony Awards with La Chanze winning for Best Actress in a Musical. The book was written by Alice Walker and became an international best seller (despite major controversy of Ms. Walker’s refusal of an Israeli publication in support of her Pro-Palestinian viewpoints). Ms. Walker was the first African-American woman to be awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Controversy continued with the Spielberg film adaptation when the movie (Whoopi Goldberg’s film debut as Celie, Danny Glover as Mister, and Oprah Winfrey as Sophia) was nominated for 11 Academy Awards yet was awarded none. The musical’s revival opened on Broadway in 2015 and would win two Tony Awards (including Best Revival of a Musical), an Emmy and a Grammy award.