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.