Taylor Hicks gets `Grease’-y

News from the Rialto: “American Idol” winner (Season 5) Taylor Hicks is going to fly onto Broadway as Teen Angel in the revival of Grease (you know, the one you didn’t want but came with a reality TV show anyway).

Hicks, who will be making his Broadway debut (alert the Tony Award nominating committee), is following in the footsteps of other “Idol” alums, including Fantasia, LaToya London and Clay Aiken. He starts his doo-wop-diddy gig on June 6 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and continues through Sept. 7.

Here’s what Hicks had to say in a press release: “I am incredibly excited to be a part of one of my favorite musicals. The Soul Patrol’s gonna invade Broadway!”

If you are part of the patrol that is soul, here’s what you need to know about tickets for Grease: $71.50-$121.50. Call 212-307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.greaseonbroadway.com.

Review: `The Color Purple’

Opened Oct. 12, 2007 at the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco

Purple musical finally finds its voice
Three stars: Lumpy, ultimately beautiful bundle

Those first few moments of the overture are crushing as you think, “Hey, I came here for The Color Purple, not for `Rejected Themes from `The Love Boat.’

In theory, the notion of turning Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a musical makes perfect sense. In fact, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie version had so much music (all created under the astute guidance of Quincy Jones), it was practically a musical itself.

Walker’s story of Celie, a resilient young woman raped by her father beginning at age 12 and victim of seemingly every indignity in the years that follow, is prime musical material. At the core of Walker’s story is the strength of love, the power of faith and the divine right to find — and use — the voice we’re given. All of that is prime fodder for the musical theater stage.

With a team of producers so numerous it resembles a directory for a downtown law firm (with the name Oprah Winfrey prominently listed before everyone else), The Color Purple opened on Broadway in 2005, won a Tony Award for its leading lady (LaChanze as Celie). The show has proven to be a sturdy hit and is now on tour.

At San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre for Friday’s opening-night performance, the audience was primed for an Oprah-endorsed hit inspired by the Bay Area’s own Walker.

Then that darn overture started spilling from the orchestra pit, and when the music by composers Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray didn’t sound like bad 1970s TV themes, it sounded like incidental music for the dusty, sparkly Jubilee! spectacular in Las Vegas.

In the nearly three hours that follow, what we get from these Purple pros is a slick Broadway concoction that is streamlined for the masses. Director Gary Griffin has trouble deciding just how serious he wants this show to be. Is it a piece of social and artistic significance such as Porgy and Bess? It could easily have been, but it’s not.

Is it more of a musical-by-committee mess than that, aspiring to be something for everyone. Early on, as we see Celie (played by the extraordinary Jeannette Bayardelle, above left) abused by her father, her husband and life in general, the gravity of her situation keeps being upended by the presence of three church ladies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Lynette Dupree), who pick a little and talk a little in brief attempts at comic relief.

This is The Color Purple, which takes place in Georgia in the first half of the 20th century. We don’t expect — or need — comic relief. This is an early misstep in Marsha Norman’s book.

Griffin’s direction aims for machine-like efficiency and mostly succeeds, though it seems whenever there’s any chasing or running onstage, his staging turns ridiculous.

There’s no room in this story for the ridiculous — except if we can consider cruelty, ignorance and heartlessness ridiculous.

Walker’s story is powerful, and no Broadway musical machine can prevent it from connecting with the audience. That is the ultimate triumph of this Purple.

For all the mediocre songs (you want proof? Try “Big Dog” or “Miss Celie’s Pants”) and Broadway gloss, there’s a show here that pulsates with compassion and love and redemption. Even the score, when it attempts to fire up some gospel energy (“Mysterious Ways”) or create a somewhat authentic 1920s juke joint number (“Push Da Button”) breaks out of its pop doldrums.

We get glimpses of beauty in the stage pictures created by John Lee Beatty’s set and Brian MacDevitt’s lights, which traffic heavily in silhouettes. But where this show lives is in the performances of its cast.

Bayardelle, a veteran of the Broadway production, anchors the story as Celie. Her expressive face, and even better, her powerhouse voice elevate the show and give it dignity and emotional heft.

Would that she had a better vocal partner on the affecting duet “What About Love?” Michelle Williams (of Destiny’s Child fame), as juke joint singer Shug Avery, was not in great voice Friday. The song, which gives voice to Celie’s first true love, should be a standout, but Williams couldn’t quite muster up the power.

The touring production is fortunate to have another Broadway veteran, Felicia P. Fields (above left) as Sofia. Watching this fine comedian and dramatic actor strut her potent stuff through “Hell No!” and then later make love on a porch (“Any Little Thing,” sung with the charming Stu James as Harpo) is a delight. Like Bayardelle, Fields knows the line between serious theater and musical theater, and she’s comfortable on both sides.

Also notable is sweet-voiced LaToya London (one of the few good things to come from “American Idol”) as Nettie, Celie’s sister.

Unlike most musicals, where things tend to drop off after intermission, Act 2 of The Color Purple is all payoff. The story starts in 1909, but by the second act we’re in the ’30s and ’40s. There are about half as many songs in this act, and that’s a good thing.

Bayardelle’s Celie finally triumphs against the oppressive forces (namely her “husband” Mister, played by Rufus Bonds Jr.) in her life and gets her own aria at last: “I’m Here.”

Act 2’s Africa fantasia falls short both musically (so what else is new?) and choreographically. Donald Byrd’s movement, which tries to marry authenticity with Broadway pizzazz, squanders much of the number’s energy.

But Act 2 also introduces the score’s best song: “The Color Purple,” a simple choral number that serves as a prayer to the better things in a harsh world. The warmth of the song wraps gently around the story’s tear-jerking conclusion and hits that sweet musical theater spot where emotion, sound and story become spirit.

After the opening-night curtain call (and enthusiastic, not just rote, standing ovation), producer Scott Sanders introduced a radiant Walker, who deservedly took a bow and kindly accepted a proclamation from the mayor’s office proclaiming Alice Walker Day in San Francisco.

Walker should take a great big bow. Her story, it seems, can survive any adaptation and remain true to its beautiful, wounded, triumphant heart.

The Color Purple continues at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, through Dec. 9. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

Color her proud: Oakland’s LaToya London stars in `Purple’

When she was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, she was called LaToya London, the name the country got to know when she emerged as someone to watch on Season 3 of “American Idol.”

But these days, the “LaToya” is history and the “London” is preferred.

“I love the name I was born with, but as an artist, I prefer to be called London,” says the 28-year-old _ now with a single name, like Cher or Madonna. She’s on the phone from Chicago, where she’s finishing up the run of the hit Broadway musical The Color Purple.

London and the Purple company get some time off in between the Chicago run and the Oct. 9 opening at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.

“Physically, I’m in Chicago, but my mind isn’t. It’s already home,” London says, referring to the Bay Area, where her mom, sisters, nieces, nephews and large extended family all live.

“The thing I miss about Oakland is the scenery,” London says. “The lake, the Bay, the bridge, driving down 80 and seeing the bridge over the water and that whole view when the sun is about to set.”

The Color Purple run in Chicago has been a good one for London, who received some nice reviews for her portrayal of Nettie, sister of main character Celie (played on tour by Jeannette Bayardelle(below, left, with London), a veteran of the still-running Broadway production).

Though the musical version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker novel was not fully embraced by critics, audiences have been another story. The show has proven profitable and quite popular.

“It’s a wonderful story of inspiration to anyone going through something negative in their life,” London says. “It’s a life-changing show. The musical is closer to the book than the movie was, and the music adds a whole other element. I wasn’t sure how they were going to do it. Musicals can get cheesy, and this is not a cheesy story. But (composers) Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray did it brilliantly.”

More accustomed to the life of an independent singer, London says the theater is a grind.

“Eight shows a week — that’s the hardest part,” she says. “I’m used to the schedule I like. This is more like a 9-to-5 job. It’s definitely an adjustment for me.”

But she does love the acting. “Every night I discover something different about myself, and I feel my capability,” she says. “I just can’t wait to go further with different characters. Nettie is close to who I am, so it’s easy to relate. To challenge myself, I hope my next role is completely different.”

London was in Oakland briefly a couple weeks ago at her old high school, Skyline, to help launch a Color Purple-related essay contest.

The topic is “How I Changed My Life,” and if she had to write an essay on that subject, London says she’d write about how she changed her life by taking responsibility.

“When you stop blaming other people and actually embrace who you are, you can change yourself for the better,” London says. “No one can make you do anything, especially as an adult. That’s when you stop making excuses and start taking action to create your own destiny.”
Next up for London: a second album — “definitely soulful but fun and funny and spunky, more of who I am” — and movies.

“I’d like to work with Quentin Tarantino and do some drama or action,” she says. “We’ll see what comes along.”

London has been back to visit Skyline several times since her star has ascended, and every time, folks at the school are thrilled to see her and make a fuss.

“They treat me good,” London says. “That’s definitely different from when I went there.”

Then she laughs. The humorous side of London, the one she wants to make more visible in her next recording, is something America didn’t get to see much while she was on “Idol.”

“I was so quiet and reserved on the show,” London says. “There’s other sides to me. My friends and family see those sides every day, and they say to me, `The people didn’t get to knwo who you were. You’re fun and funny. Get that out there.’ I’m like a comedian and an improvisational actress. There are some people I know who would say about me, `This girl is nuts.’ It’s time for me to put that out there and let everyone see that.”

During our conversation, that fun side emerged several times. When I asked London if, during the Chicago run of Purple she got to spend any quality time with the show’s big-name producer, Oprah Winfrey. London said that some cast members were invited to be in the audience for a taping of Oprah’s show, and during one of the commercial breaks, Oprah introduced them.

“Afterward, we got to have our pictures taken with her, so there was a little small talk,” London says. “So I didn’t get quality time with her. I did have an orgy with her, but I had to share her.”

Then there’s a wicked little laugh. “Moving right along…” London says.

For information about The Color Purple, visit www.shnsf.com.

And if you’re wondering if London has the goods or if she’s another “American Idol” hype machine by-product, just check out this clip of her singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the show.