What a pleasure it is to see a Broadway touring musical with the meaty substance of “The Color Purple.”
And what a treat to see it done so well. Thanks especially to the terrific actresses in the show’s featured roles, this “Color Purple” clearly entertained and inspired an opening-night crowd of 1,785 at the Orpheum Theater on Tuesday.
Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel, with its dark themes of physical and sexual abuse, racism and unfaithful lovers, would seem an unlikely subject for a musical. It succeeds not only on talent but also on its themes of faith, hope and love in the face of great adversity.
It’s the story of a poor, humble black woman, Celie. At age 14 she has given birth to two children sired by her father before being married off to a life of drudgery with abusive husband Mister in rural Georgia. Her children are taken from her. Mister banishes her sister, Nettie, and hides Nettie’s letters from Celie. And Mister is in love with a juke-joint singer named Shug Avery.
Everyone tells Celie she’s ugly.
Faithfully adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, “The Color Purple” spans 40 years in Celie’s life (1909-1949) as she learns to stand up for herself and love who she is.
Dayna Jarae Dantzler, as Celie, sings pure and strong, from the heart, giving you goose bumps when she finally comes into her own with the triumphant “I’m Here.” Contrast that with the sweet humility she projects as she croons to her newborn, “Somebody Gonna Love You,” and you get an idea of her dramatic range as an actress.
Dantzler also dazzles in close-harmony duets with both Traci Allen as Nettie (“Our Prayer”) and Taprena Augustine as Shug (“What About Love?”).
Augustine impresses with a bawdy, rousing juke-joint number (“Push the Button”) and the inspiring title song.
Pam Trotter was a clear crowd favorite as bull-headed Sofia, a friend who tries to teach Celie the only answer to being abused is a rousing “Hell, no.”
Trotter sings the guts out of that number and provides comedic relief all night long as she pushes around husband Harpo (Lee Edward Colston II). The two got big laughs while getting it on in the playfully sarcastic “Any Little Thing.”
Also a big hit: a trio of church ladies who gossip in song about Celie and Shug and Mister with attitude and abandon.
Among the men, Edward C. Smith leads the cast as cruel Mister, who finds redemption in this show in a way he didn’t in the 1986 movie version. Like those key women, Smith, too, is a gifted singer-actor.
Costumes combine with musical styles to subtly mark the passage of time. Though this is not a scenery-heavy show, lighting design is particularly effective in evoking mood. Dance numbers need just a bit more time for sharp unison movement.
But right away the company of 25 got the crowd hooked with a rousing gospel opening, “Mysterious Ways.”
They were just as good dirty-dancing through “Push the Button” and producing a lush, full choral sound on the show’s emotional finale. A lusty bunch of field hands got the ladies buzzing early with a sexy dance number, “Big Dog.”
In the end, it was the potent combination of a moving story with great singer-actresses that brought the crowd to its feet early at the curtain call. Word of mouth will have the box office busy Wednesday. The show runs through Sunday.
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