BY SANDY STAGGS
Director John Doyle’s exemplary reboot of “The Color Purple” (2016 Tony winner for Best Revival) is in many ways, the anti-Broadway musical.
This production is, by far, the least flashy show you will see all year in the Peace Center’s Broadway season. There are no high-tech fly-ins, no moving set pieces and aside from the stylings of the bigger-than-life sultry chanteuse Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), no vibrant color palettes in the costumes, at least in the first act.
With a book by Marsha Norman (“ ‘night, Mother”) and Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, this musical is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel by Alice Walker and Menno Meyjes’ screenplay for the film version directed by Steven Spielberg that launched the acting careers of both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.
And while Doyle strips the production down to its core, basically eliminating imposing scene transitions and hiding the orchestra somewhere upstage to let the indelible spirit of its central characters and magnificent songs deliver this empowering story, he does impose on the audience’s familiarity with Walker’s iconic book and its Hollywood counterpart.
Set in rural Georgia from about 1910-1940 (beginning just one generation from slavery), “The Color Purple” tackles rape, incest, domestic abuse, racism, faith, and the general oppression of women.
Opening appropriately in church with the rousing gospel number “Mysterious Ways,” young Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a poor African-American girl, soon gives birth to her second child, Adam, seeded by her father and then taken away by him. The “ugly” Celie is then married off to an abusive widower farmer Mister (Gavin Gregory) to take care of his unruly children, though he has his eye on Celie’s beautiful younger sister, Nettie (N’Jameh Camara).
Beaten by Mister, and forced to work like a man, Mister attacks Nettie and ultimately bans her from the farm and forbids any contact between the sisters.
Doyle cleverly frames Nettie as the mailbox here, as she holds a letter, unobtainable by her sister. His entire set design is spartan with only 3 wooden vertical walls lined with chairs that serve as the only props in the show besides a few baskets and African textiles in the second act.
God has forsaken Celie but she finds hope and solace in two other women who enter her life.
The strong-willed Sofia (Brit West, who gives a powerhouse performance this week as the understudy) marries Harpo (played by the engaging J. Daughtry), Mister’s eldest and malleable son. It is Ms. West who delivers the infamous “I loves Harpo. God knows I do, but I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.” Between this one line of dialogue and her incredible brawny version of “Hell No!”, which led to an uproarious response by the opening night audience, which isn’t surprising in the #MeToo era.
Then, there is the aforementioned Shug, Celie’s savior and ultimately, love. Praise the lord that the musical does not sugarcoat the lesbian relationship the way Spielberg did over 30 years ago. Of course, it was the times and audiences have progressed. “Fried Green Tomatoes,” set in neighboring Alabama and made just three years later suffered the same “implied” love fate.
Shug is Mister’s mistress, daughter of a preacher, mother of three illegitimate children, and a somewhat successful jazz and blues singer.
With a voice akin to Jennifer Hudson, Ms. Stewart soars with charisma and grit in her Harpo’s Juke Joint debut with the jazzy rag “Push Da Button” and is equally adept in slower tempo ballads “Too Beautiful for Words” as well as most pop-oriented tune in the show, her gorgeous duet with Celie “What About Love?” with its lovely piano line.
Other standouts in this show include Erica Durham as Harpo’s girlfriend and Sofia’s onetime nemesis Squeak, and the three Church Ladies who act as a gossiping Greek Chorus.
But the star of this show is Ms. Hicks, who, although she doesn’t physically age on stage, matures in her arc over the course of two-plus hours from a meek girl playing a version of PattyCake with her baby sister (“Huckleberry Pie”) to a young forsaken “colored” mother (“Somebody Gonna Love You”) to a self-aware, independent businesswoman in “Miss Celie’s Pants” and “I’m Here.”
In her journey, Celie is finally able to see for the first time, the color purple and what God has created for womankind to cherish, and know she is loved.
The ending in this version does lean to very sentimental by including Mister in the finale. And I did miss “Miss Celie’s Blues” from the film and the heartbreaking scene when Sofia is attacked after confronting the Mayor. However, this would have broken the spell of the all-African American casting.
“The Color Purple” continues through Sunday, March 18 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main Street in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 467-3000 or visit www.peacecenter.org.