Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Purple reign

Aubin Wise, Lovely Huffman, and the color purple. Photos: Glenn Perry Photography

I confess I've always had mixed feelings about Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and its trajectory through the pop firmament. I wasn't a huge fan of the brutally honest but somewhat clumsy novel (I never got through it), although at the time I was certainly an admirer of its author, who was if not a great writer then surely a committed and sincere activist (even if, yes, she has occasionally gone off the deep end of late). The book's brutality somehow turned to syrup in the eventual Spielberg movie, which brought the young Oprah Winfrey into the property's orbit. This in turn led to the talk show star (and global brand) lending her name to the struggling Broadway musical more than a decade later, which in the end achieved close to a three-year run. I didn't see it in New York, but caught the national tour when it rolled through town, and was stunned by the quality of the cast - but felt that the basic material had once more resisted the ministrations of another generation of very talented folks.

So The Color Purple remains somehow commercially and politically relevant - perhaps partly because it has been a touchstone in the rise of so many influential people, who have in turn worked to keep it afloat culturally, even if it's hard to get all that excited about it artistically. I think in the end audiences respond more to what it opposes (racism, sexism, homophobia) than what it actually accomplishes.

It's certainly not the first pop artifact to work that way, but I do think it's worth describing it for what it actually is rather than what we'd like it to be.  And what's most curious about Purple is its complicated attitude toward the lesbianism at its center.  Walker has identified as gay, of course - at least off and on - but has also sometimes seemed stand-offish about fully embracing that identity. And Oprah, like several other high-profile entertainment figures, has long operated in a kind of half-acknowledged glass closet.

So perhaps it's no surprise that The Color Purple has lost much of its lavender hue as it has moved toward the feel-good norms of the mainstream. The musical still gestures toward its leading lady's lesbianism (there's still a flash of nudity), but it also genuflects repeatedly before various altars of family values which are, shall we say, less than hospitable to homosexuality.  So just as Purple yokes together juke joints and the Baptist choir in an unlikely alliance, so it attempts to conjure some unstated understanding between gays, straights, and everybody in between.

The idea seems to be a celebration of the "identity" of Celie, Walker's passive, put-upon protagonist, as long as she doesn't actually say exactly what that identity is. The downtrodden Celie does learn to stand up for herself  - and frees herself from several almost cartoonishly-wicked male oppressors; but she never actually declares much about herself. I suppose that's fine as far as it goes, especially as unstated long-term lesbian partnerships were a commonplace in the South I grew up in (at least in the white community). And as there are young performers in this show, many would argue that not much that goes on in it should ever be clearly articulated anyhow.

But beyond that, I'm less than convinced by the magical powers that the glass closet seems to exert in this musical.  Indeed, Celie's new secret identity all but transforms everyone around her. Seemingly inspired by her quiet lesbianism, recalcitrant villains reform themselves; long-lost sisters return from across the sea; even business ventures lead to fame and fortune. It's like the Oprah Winfrey Show in more ways than one - that secret lesbian mojo is powerful stuff, let me tell you.

Crystin Gilmore exorts us to "Push Da Button" in The Color Purple .

So all hail the magical glass closet! I admit I myself am a little surprised by how much it still figures in our culture. Not that the The Color Purple shoves its heroine into hiding (as the noxious Saving Mr. Banks does); still, it is essentially a call for private self-determination rather than public revolution (it doesn't even go quite as far as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith did some eighty years ago). And to be honest, the constantly evolving bisexual alignments in Purple don't always make much emotional sense. But as no one can talk about them, not much drama can develop around their conflicts; and somehow they're all empowering just the same.

Well, so be it. As SpeakEasy Stage first made its name as a gay theatre that wasn't too radical for straight audiences, The Color Purple is perhaps a natural choice for it (I'm almost surprised it hasn't already produced this show).  And artistic director Paul Daigneault has certainly done the musical up right, moving into the larger Calderwood space at the BCA, and fielding an impressive cast.  The performers here didn't make me forget about the national tour, but they definitely put over the numbers - and the recruits from a recent Memphis production did a good deal more than that.

The leading light from Memphis is Crystin Gilmore, whose radiant turn as Shug Avery, the juke joint diva who opens Celie's eyes to physical love, jubilantly punches up a slightly saggy first act.  Hardly a step behind is Valerie Houston, who makes of Celia's friend Sofia (Oprah's role in the movie) an unstoppably jolly force of sexual nature.  The Boston folks don't make quite as strong an impression - although Aubin Wise shines in the relatively small role of Nettie, and there's a sweetly sexy turn from Jared Dixon as Sofia's gentle husband, along with funny cameos by Carolyn Saxon, Taylor Washington, and the hilarious Anich D'Jae as a gossipy trio of church ladies. 

But alas, local mainstay Maurice Emmanuel Parent seems a bit lost at times in the role of "Mr.," Celie's harsh husband (and no wonder, as his motives remain mostly unwritten).  And as Celie herself, the talented Lovely Huffman struggles at first to actively "lead" the show while still playing a passive character (she does bloom in the second act).  Alas, these gaps loom larger than they should due to the awkwardness of Marsha Norman's book (which solves some of the inherent problems in the novel's structure, but hardly all).

And while the score is solid, it's not quite memorable - but these days, what on Broadway is? Certainly the band, under the direction of Nicholas James Connell, proves superb in all the genres that composers Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray reference, and you may even find yourself humming along with "Any Little Thing" (which has my vote for best song in the show). The cast meanwhile has a raucous blast in big numbers like "Push Da Button" (although the roots of Jenna McFarland Lord's central tree cramped the choreography a bit).  I can't deny these folks' energy is infectious, even if it didn't change my mind about their show.

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