Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Purple reign

Angela Robinson lets loose with the dynamic cast of The Color Purple.

This is a quick post-mortem on the tour of The Color Purple (or more specifically Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple), which I caught at one of its last performances at CitiCenter last weekend. The cavernous Wang Theatre was only half full, which was too bad, because it turned out to be a stronger show than I had imagined it would be. And it seemed like yet another case (like Pirates!) of a dynamite cast stuck in material that wasn't quite up to their abilities.

Which is actually a symptom of the wider culture. In case you haven't noticed, technically, performances keep getting stronger and stronger, even as the content of those performances slowly gets weaker and weaker. Or at the very least less original. The score of The Color Purple is a case in point. The trio that produced it (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, all more generally associated with pop than Broadway) have come up with an energetic, catchy amalgam that swings between sugary-sad uplift and down-and-dirty Fats Waller stomp without every finding its own voice. (But then whaddya want, it was written by a committee!) This makes for an evening of pleasant diversion - which alas includes diversion from the awareness that we are not actually hearing a fresh musical statement.

And then there's the much-maligned book for the show, by Marsha Norman, which everybody says is paced too quickly, with a weird detour to Africa that the production never really recovers from. But aren't those problems traceable directly to Alice Walker's novel (of which I'm not really a fan)? Given the source, in other words, it seems to me that Ms. Norman has done a pretty good job.

Of course, since The Color Purple, with its rapes and bartered brides and lesbianism (not to mention its beatings and genital cutting and long-lost orphans, etc.) is really so very purple, perhaps we could have hoped for a few more steamy thrills from the show than the sweet-but-bland "heart" with which it's infused. But then again, how exactly was Norman going to sell this rambling cross of The Well of Loneliness, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Roots to a black audience that is notoriously conservative and homophobic? And to be fair, while she treads lightly on the issues that might send many an African-American pastor screaming out into the street, she doesn't actually leave anything out (except that clitorectomy!).

So yes, it's a weird script - because let's be honest, the book was weird (although it certainly aired a lot of necessary sexual and political laundry for black women, and women in general). And that African interlude is definitely a "WTF?" moment. And sometimes the show seems to devolve into another poor black woman suffering, again, after which another black woman begins to hum soulfully, before breaking into song (although the show eventually backs away from its victimization/villainization dichotomy - its chief male baddie, Albert, reforms at the last minute, and once women are literally wearing the pants, everything is just better). Still, much of the time the show is actually quite a bit of fun - there are kicky songs about sex (a frisky ode to the pleasure zone in "Push Da Button" as well as the bumptious "Any Little Thing"), and at least one genuinely touching ballad ("What About Love?").

And then, of course, there was this cast - a veritable army of triple threats. (Can we be honest for a moment and just admit that if we really believed in color-blind casting, there wouldn't be any white folks left on the stage?) Stand-outs included Kenita R. Miller's Celie, Angela Robinson's Shug Avery, Brandon Victor Dixon's Harpo, Rufus Bonds, Jr.'s Mister, and Kim Harris's Sofia (she replaced Felicia P. Fields in the performance I attended). But to be frank, all the voices were startlingly good, all the dances electric, all the acting strong. This was an ensemble without a gap - indeed, without even an average performance. What's more, these folks sang their hearts out to only half a house. It was this that made The Color Purple a truly sterling production.

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